No good signs for the president-elect

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No good signs for the president-elect

Koh Hyun-kohn
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Lee Myung-bak won the 2007 election by 5.32 million more votes than his opponent. Lee benefited from public discontent from the one-sided governance and housing policy failure under liberal president Roh Moo-hyun. The businessman-turned-politician rose to power in high gear and on his strong drive for the Cheongye stream restoration project while he was Seoul’s mayor.

Lee’s transition team worked without a day off, trotting out new plans as if to rebuild the country. Over-zealousness led to apprehension. People worried about utility fee hikes following a proposal to privatize public corporations. Why the president was so obsessed with creating a grand canal through the peninsula was puzzling. Enhanced English class in school curriculum also sparked controversy. People began to wonder if the president was on their side as his policy mostly seemed to favor the rich.

The public suspicion hardened after his appointments for major government posts. His first 15 cabinet ministers reported real estate properties worth an average of 2.5 billion won ($2 million) and financial assets of 1.1 billion won. All of them owned properties beyond the homes they lived in. Being rich should not be a hurdle to recruiting senior posts. Yet the ministers were birds of a feather. They possessed properties in rich neighborhoods of Gangnam, southern Seoul, or came from Korea University as the president did, or from the Gyeongsang province, where Lee grew up. In the two months following his election, Lee and his government were stigmatized as a well-off group of people. Once formed, a stigma is not easy to break.

By the time Lee was sworn in late February 2008, much of his popularity had waned. But the proud Lee and his people were oblivious. In April, the so-called mad cow disease scare broke out. The conservative government crumbled easily under ridiculous theories. In his memoir, Lee recalled the resistance against the transition, as seen in the mad cow gossip. The new government lost public confidence. The teens who were not happy about the government’s mandate on morning study time before class started to join candlelight vigil protests against the government. After 100 days in office, Lee’s approval rating was 21 percent from 52 percent. Lee and his aides had complained how evaluation had been particularly harsh on the government. But everything has a reason.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol reminds me a lot of Lee. Both are highly self-confident. Yoon prides himself for being “fast in decision-making.” Lee also was known for speedy action. Because of the rashness, there had been half-baked policies that were pushed through without public understanding or support. They both stoked conflict and made enemies. Shortly after election, Yoon said that prioritizing appointments for women and based on regions does not help unite the country.

Yoon has been too hasty in announcing the decision to move the presidential office to the Ministry of National Defense building in Yongsan. The government and political attention is focused on the move while Covid-19 has infected one out of five people and North Korea has test-fired an ICBM again. The confusion and discord over the relocation of the presidential office could be avoided if the idea has been first discussed with the sitting government and people.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks before presiding over a meeting at the office of the transition committee near the Blue House on Tuesday. [KANG JUNG-HYUN] 

His aides are another source of worry. They are acting as if they have come to rule the world. The three key players — Reps. Chang Je-won, Kwon Seong-dong and Yoon Han-hong — all used to serve former president Lee Myung-bak. When the list of members of Yoon’s transition committee was leaked, Chang threatened to hunt down who was responsible and kick that person out of the party. He acted as if he had the power to make the call. Kwon also caused controversy by mentioning a pardon for the former president, urging resignation of Prosecutor General Kim Oh-soo and removing Transition Committee Chair Ahn Cheol-soo from a list of prime minister candidates.

Yoon’s transition team members have a common feature — graduates from Seoul National University (SNU) and men in their 50s. Of the 24 members, just four are women and one from the Jeolla province. Yoon, a career prosecutor who commanded the top law enforcement agency under the sitting government, is surrounded by alumni from the SNU law department or ex-prosecutors. The president-elect vows to prioritize competence, but the public is uncomfortable with the elitist members.

The political reality can be harsh. A president who was elected by a huge margin of 5.32 million became shunned in two months. The honeymoon period can be shorter for Yoon, who won by a narrow margin of 240,000. Yoon has a weak base in the People Power Party (PPP) and does not have loyal supporters. The progressive force could strike at any time like the mad cow protests. A Realmeter survey showed Yoon’s approval ratings dropping to 46 percent from 52.7 percent shortly after the election. The rating is even below President Moon Jae-in’s 46.7 percent. Skepticism about his performance as president has hit a whopping 49.6 percent even before his inauguration.

The president-elect must feel alarmed. Through refined language and engaging policy and appointments, Yoon must earn support from half the population who did not vote for him. People do not open their hearts just because the president has lunches with merchants. Former president Lee also frequented marketplaces and tended to consumer prices. But he is behind bars now.
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