Seoul Mayor's Election: Grenade in the Blue House Bunker

South Korea’s extreme-right conservatives are in seeming shock over last Wednesday’s mayoral election in Seoul, as if the victor, an independent candidate named Park Won-soon, had brought a group of pro-North Korean followers into office with him.

In fact, the debacle visited on the ruling Grand National Party probably means a diminution of the harsh rhetoric directed at North Korea, a relaxing of South Korea’s close embrace of Washington, DC, and raises the prospect that the economic system will shift to whatever extent practicable away from the chaebol, the giant conglomerates that run the economy, to a more welfare-oriented policy.

In truth, Park, a former human rights lawyer and anti-graft civic activist who ran as an independent, is not a splinter candidate who came from nowhere. He had the support of all of the progressive opposition parties, not to mention the main opposition Democratic Party, which voters turned away from as well. The coalition collaborated on an effort to deny the Grand National Party’s candidate, Na Kyung-won, the chance to become Seoul’s first female mayor.

It was also a slap in the face for Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the onetime strongman Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated by his own security chief in 1979. Park had earlier seemed the odds-on favorite for the presidency in 2013. The choice of Park was thus a grenade rolled into the Blue House bunker by angry citizens, with opponents of the Lee government dreaming that they can once again take control of the National Assembly and the Blue House, respectively.

The dream now seems achievable, since Park Geun-hye made the race a mini-referendum on her own prospects by putting aside her decision to stand aloof from party politics and to get down into the ring by campaigning for Na. No South Korean presidential candidate has ever carried the nation without carrying Seoul. Ahn Cheol-soo, a reformist professor at Seoul National University with no political affiliation, has suddenly arisen as one of Park’s most prominent presidential rivals.

The selection of Park and the voter identification with Ahn demonstrates the clear-cut antipathy of angry citizens against the GNP and the Lee government, which has shown mind-boggling hypocrisy in terms of morality. Park Won-soon’s fundraising Web site crashed temporarily simply because of the flood of donations. Small donations, which filled Park’s campaign coffers in just three days, are regarded as a demonstration of displeasure over the Lee government’s corruption and inability to govern effectively.

Few believed Lee’s empty campaign pledges, which were called the 7-4-7, a reference to projected 7 percent growth, US$40,000 per capita income and Korea’s rise to the G-7 Group. But it was not his breach of the pledge that mattered. Voters have been increasingly turned off by the perception that the government has been unable to improve the lives of the voting public despite the increasing earnings of the chaebol. Sharply rising college fees and unemployment have also played a role. Inflation and stagnant wages have also been blamed. However, it was Lee’s poor governing philosophy that eventually led to the absence of trust in the government itself. I suspect that even government officials themselves do not trust the Lee government to do the right thing most of the time.

The current political climate must be a nightmare to the GNP, which wishes to continue as the governing party even after Mr. Lee ends his one-term presidency in February, 2014. It’s because the voters have shifted leftward as moderates have moved closer to the liberal candidate.

The election results show that 21 of the whole constituencies gave Park a winning vote, compared with only four traditional ones in which Na won. According to the results, a majority of the voters said they believed that Lee’s policies, which were primarily aimed at economic growth rather than the welfare of the citizenry were a major factor in the defeat. Indeed the GNP and the Lee government both appear to voters to be lame, ineffective, feckless, timid, and hopelessly divided, with no ideas, no vision, no message and no future:

The Grand National Party will face a shellacking in the 2012 general elections, which are less than six months away, unless the Lee government resolves the unemployment of young voters and widening income gap in one way or another.

Lee, a former Seoul mayor himself who inspired the country as a moderate pragmatist at his election in 2008, now sometimes acts like former US President George W Bush, who used to excite fundamentalists and dismay most liberals, campaigning as what he called a “uniter” only to turn into what he called a “divider” as chief executive. Voters began to recognize that Lee was not a unifier. Rather, he sharpened the ideological divide across the nation. The president is clearly a pro-conglomerate leader and his interests coincide with theirs, to the distress of the economically betrayed people on the street.

Although Park Geun-hye has continued to earn strong voter support and has been considered the front-runner, Lee’s leadership crisis also threatens her political future. Park’s chances of winning the presidency are now slimmer than her supporters expect. The most recent survey, conducted on Oct. 29 by the Hankyoreh and Korea Society Opinion Institute, reveals an interesting outcome.

In a head-to-head match-up for the presidential race between Park and Ahn Cheol-soo, who suddenly arose as one of Park’s most prominent presidential rivals, the survey found Park’s support at 45.9 percent, compared to 48.0 percent for Ahn, The academic has been widely acclaimed as an innovative entrepreneur who founded a computer virus-related company instead of routinely continuing to work in the similar medical field after graduating from a prestigious medical school.

Above all, many voters still remember that he flatly refused to sell his company abroad on the moral grounds that Korean information technology industry should remain ‘technologically independent’ and secure from foreign companies’ possible sway at home.

Ahn officially supported Park as the newly elected mayor of Seoul instead of running for the job himself. The mayoral position is commonly known as a stepping stone to the presidency. Conservatives point out that Ahn has touted his clean image as a way to attack the corrupt politics and Lee’s poor handling of the Korean economy. In addition, the attacks appear to be working. Given that the presidential election is about the economy (including jobs) and corruption, the corrupt politics combined with the faltering economy appear to be the perfect ingredients to secure Ahn’s position as the alternative independent candidate and ultimately the Blue House.

It means that in four years, Koreans have soured completely on Lee and are again hungry for a morally good leader. Given another survey where 58 percent of the respondents in their 30s, 49.1 percent in 20s and 46.6 percent in 40s, respectively, were in favor of Ahn’s joining the presidential race, making him an attractive candidate for today’s zeitgeist, even if he needs to be thoroughly ‘scanned’ in all respects in case he officially declares his running for the presidency.

Like the new Seoul mayor, Ahn is one of the very few who understands the expansion of the liberal rhetoric. One thing that Ahn himself should keep in mind is that the conservatives may try cleverly to trap him in the guru frame, a story line about one individual who passes himself off as having all the answers to other people’s problems. Nevertheless, Ahn appears likely to be considered seriously as a presidential candidate. .

(Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. These comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Institute.)