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The golden era of bad guys running for president in S. Korea

한겨레 입력 2021. 09. 26. 10:06

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With less than six months left until the presidential election in March 2022 and party primaries underway, the candidate pool is starting to take shape. But why are so many career politicians lagging behind politicians who have been embroiled in scandals?
By Ha Jae-wook

In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, candidate for the Democratic Justice Party, was elected president of South Korea under the slogan of “an era for ordinary people.” Kim Young-sam ran on the ticket of the Democratic Liberal Party under the slogan “change and reform” in 1992, and Kim Dae-jung ran with the National Congress for New Politics under the slogan “a change of government and overcoming the Asian financial crisis.”

Roh Tae-woo had been part of the junta led by Chun Doo-hwan that launched a coup in 1980. In contrast, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung had been popular politicians resisting the junta. That was the kind of person who became president back then. In a certain sense, it was a romantic time.

But since the beginning of the 21st century, figures of a completely different temperament have been elected president, one after another. Roh Moo-hyun (candidate for the Millennium Democratic Party, elected in 2002) was a political outsider. He threw himself into overcoming the regionalism that had dominated Korean politics until that point.

Lee Myung-bak (candidate for the Grand National Party, elected in 2007) was an icon of the lowly office worker who made good, while Park Geun-hye (candidate for the Saenuri Party, elected in 2012) was a throwback to her father, Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian president who shepherded Korea down the path to industrialization.

Finally, Moon Jae-in (candidate for the Democratic Party, elected in 2017) ran under the slogan of “eliminating deep-rooted evils.” As this shows, all previous presidents have been people who either symbolized something or had an idea to offer.

Today, the Republic of Korea is hurtling toward its 20th presidential election, set to be held on March 9, 2022. The leading candidates exhibit two characteristics that differentiate them from those who came before.

First, “bad guys” are racing ahead while members of the moral elite are spinning their wheels.

Second, the candidates are busy slinging mud at each other. There’s been a tremendous amount of negative campaigning. There’s no evidence that the candidates are competing on the basis of values, platforms or policies.

It remains to be seen whether this trend will persist, but it’s certainly a curious phenomenon. What’s the reason for it?

The ruling Democratic Party’s regional primaries in Gwangju and South Jeolla Province on Saturday and the results of a poll of delegates and voting members in North Jeolla Province on Sunday may prove to be a watershed moment.

If Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung nabs an outright majority of votes in North and South Jeolla Provinces (known as the Honam region), the ruling party’s primaries will effectively be over.

But if Lee Nak-yon, former party leader, can make a comeback, we’ll have to wait for the results of the second super week on Oct. 3 and the third super week on Oct. 10.

Could Lee Nak-yon pull an upset in run-off voting? Playing catch-up won’t be easy if Lee Jae-myung has a big lead.

But politics is full of surprises. We’ll have to see how things play out.

At any rate, popular sentiment in Honam will determine the course of the Democratic Party primaries. That shows that Honam remains the party’s stronghold. Honam’s pick has gone on to be the party’s candidate in previous presidential elections.

Two factors that are behind Lee Jae-myung’s commanding lead in the Democratic Party primaries are regionalism and confirmation bias.

Regionalism is grounded in the model of choosing a candidate from Yeongnam, in the southeast, who has the support of Honam, in the southwest. This is a strategic choice by the voters of Honam, which has a smaller population than Yeongnam. That happened in 2002 with Roh Moo-hyun and in 2017 with Moon Jae-in. The only difference was that “PK” (Busan and South Gyeongsang Province) was replaced by “TK” (Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province).

Lee Jae-myung was born in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. That’s a bitter pill for candidates from Honam.

Confirmation bias is the factor that explains why divisive populists do better than inclusive politicians. Since the information revolution of the 21st century, voters have come to prioritize feelings over facts, and political spin doctors can operationalize outrage to galvanize the vote.

Korea isn’t the only country where that’s the case. Wherever one looks, there’s an increasing tendency to vote with the heart instead of the brain and to prioritize mystique over technique.

The canary in the coal mine was the victory of George W. Bush, who personified the Texas cowboy, over political elite Al Gore in the US’ 2000 presidential election. The triumph of Trump, wheeler and dealer extraordinaire, over Hillary Clinton in 2016 was an example of the same phenomenon.

During the local elections in 2018, Lee Jae-myung faced allegations that he used profanities with his sister-in-law and that he had an affair with an actress. Many of the Democratic Party supporters who voted for Lee in the gubernatorial election were willing to make him governor but promised they wouldn’t support him for president.

But three years later, they seem to have changed their mind. What gives?

First, the Democratic Party needed a candidate who could compete against the conservatives in the presidential election. Second, more than a moral candidate they needed an attractive one.

Lee Nak-yon must be perplexed as to why he’s losing when he hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s an articulate speaker and an effective writer. He’s a member of the elite, a graduate of Gwangju Jeil High School and the Seoul National University law school, and a former reporter at the Dong-a Ilbo. But that privileged background turns out to be his Achilles’ heel.

The same goes for Chung Sye-kyun, who dropped out of the primaries early. With previous service as a cabinet minister, speaker of the National Assembly, and prime minister, he was eminently qualified for the post.

There was a time when people said Chung’s job was to be the face of the Democratic Party. On top of that, he’s the respectable sort of person who’s unlikely to have profanities in his vocabulary. But that turned out to be his downfall — an unfortunate truth.

So far, the main candidates for the People Power Party (PPP) have been narrowed down to eight: Ahn Sang-soo, Choi Jae-hyung, Ha Tae-keung, Hong Joon-pyo, and Hwang Kyo-ahn, Won Hee-ryong, Yoo Seong-min, and Yoon Seok-youl, arranged in alphabetical order.

That field will be winnowed down to four when the results of a second poll are announced on Oct. 8. Public opinion polls so far suggest that Hong, Yoon, and Yoo will occupy three of those spots, with Won and Choi vying for the fourth.

It’s too soon to say who will be announced as the winner of the primaries on Nov. 5. Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor general, had been the front-runner, but his appeal has faded because of his implication in the prosecution service’s alleged meddling in the electoral process. In the meantime, Hong Joon-pyo, a lawmaker in the National Assembly, has been gaining ground.

The interesting thing about the PPP primary is that front-runners Hong Joon-pyo and Yoon Seok-youl both have something of a “bad guy” reputation. Hong has seemingly weathered previous scandals involving crude language and a bizarre episode from his autobiography involving a pig stimulant. Given the macho image that Hong has cultivated, those scandals don’t appear to pose much of a problem.

Yoon walks with a strut that comes across as extremely conceited. Critics have taken issue with his “manspreading” and his habit of swinging his head from side to side while he speaks.

But those very behaviors have earned him quite a few fans among the voting public. When asked, supporters say he looks like the sort of person who wouldn’t put up with any nonsense from Moon administration holdovers.

It’s for the same reason that people like Yoo, Won, and Choi have been struggling in the race. They’re too elite and too respectable. Such an assessment must leave them flabbergasted.

Perhaps the mudslinging between the election frontrunners is getting worse as an inevitable result of this showdown between “bad guys.” Most of the political news in recent weeks has been dominated by dustups between Lee Jae-myung, Hong Joon-pyo, and Yoon Seok-youl, in all possible pairings. It’s a no-holds-barred brawl.

The press itself has egged on this sort of squabbling, but the time has come to exercise restraint. The presidential election is not about choosing the best brawler. It’s about choosing the political leader who will pilot Korea’s ship of state for the next five years.

The Justice Party will be selecting its official candidate through a vote of all party members. That will consist of an online poll on Oct. 1-5 and automated phone calls on Oct. 6. If no candidate receives an absolute majority, that will trigger a run-off election. The current candidates are Sim Sang-jung and Lee Jeong-mi, both former heads of the party; Kim Yun-gi, former deputy head; and Hwang Soon-sik, head of the party committee for Gyeonggi Province.

In the 2017 election, Sim received 6.17 percent of the vote while representing the Justice Party. How much of a boost can the party achieve this time? Coming to power remains a distant prospect.

Other candidates are plotting an independent course, such as Ahn Cheol-soo, head of the minor opposition People’s Party, and Kim Dong-yeon, former deputy prime minister for the economy. But the simmering squabble between the Democratic Party and the PPP leaves almost no room in the middle.

People like Ahn and Kim are struggling to stay relevant. They might keep an eye on developments until Feb. 13-14, just before candidate registration is due, as they try to strike a last-minute deal with either the ruling or opposition parties.

The biggest story that will dominate the election news cycle after the long holiday for Chuseok is the allegation that the prosecution service meddled in politics before the general elections last year, while Yoon was prosecutor general.

It’s nearly accepted as fact that Son Jun-seong, chief of investigative intelligence policy for the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, handed over a criminal complaint to Kim Woong, a candidate for the United Future Party (now the PPP), in April 2020. It’s also undeniable that Son was one of Yoon’s key associates at the time.

But even if Yoon did encourage criminal complaints to be filed against ruling party figures, that doesn’t mean the charges will automatically be proven. The key factor in this scandal will probably be whether Son talks.

His testimony could completely transform the landscape of the presidential election on Mar. 9, 2022. If he stays silent, the allegations about prosecutorial meddling could remain an unsolved mystery.

Who will prevail in the struggle between Hong and Yoon? The latest polls give Hong a definite advantage. But Yoon is backed by the pundits in the conservative press. He’s also been endorsed by a bevy of current and former PPP lawmakers. We shouldn’t make any assumptions about the outcome.

But the matchup between Hong and Yoon may not turn out to be that important. There’s no guarantee that the PPP candidate, whoever that may be, will win in the presidential election on March 9.

A member of the PPP offered the following analysis some time ago: “While there have been various examples of unfairness and corruption — including the Cho Kuk scandal, the Incheon International Airport scandal, and the LH scandal — that doesn’t directly cast the administration in a negative light. The PPP still hasn’t wiped away the stigma of [former president Park Geun-hye’s] impeachment and [the narrative about] ‘deep-rooted evils’ and the antipathy associated with them.”

“Until the opposition party can rid itself of the reputation of being reactionaries or members of the establishment, the public basically isn’t going to regard the opposition as holding the moral high ground relative to the ruling party. Unless Yoon Seok-youl and the PPP can present a definite image of being moderate reformers, their support will necessarily be contingent,” the PPP pundit said.

Political analysts and strategists in both the PPP and the Democratic Party think that Lee Jae-myung has a slightly better chance of winning in the presidential election in 2022. One reason is that Lee’s identity is quite distinct from that of Moon, the sitting president, similar to Roh Moo-hyun vis-à-vis Kim Dae-jung in 2002 and Park Geun-hye vis-à-vis Lee Myung-bak in 2012. That may help blunt the PPP’s argument that it’s time to give someone else a chance to run the country.

But, as I mentioned earlier, politics is full of surprises.

If the presidential election in December 1997 had been held just one week later, the winner would probably have been Lee Hoi-chang, not Kim Dae-jung. Election outcomes have a crucial impact on the fate of both populace and polity, but that doesn’t change the fact that they depend so much upon random factors.

Less than six months are left until the presidential election on March 9, 2022.

By Seong Han-yong, senior editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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