Reading the newspapers, it looks like Korea’s liberals are on the verge of repeating the same, fundamental mistake as America’s conservatives. The current liberal debacle appears to have been similar to watching a slow motion train crash.
In fact, at the last minute, the train was able to come to a halt before a complete crash. But let’s not fool ourselves. Before the wheels stopped turning, substantial damage was done.
Consider last week’s television debate. By all accounts, the face-off seemed more like a squabble between Tweedledee and Tweedledum - on downers.
There was little substantial disagreement other than each of the candidates proclaiming they were better able to implement the generally agreed upon reforms. Gallingly, neither candidate bothered to explain how many of these good ideas would be financed.
So it has come to pass that Ahn blinked first, but in a way that maintained his integrity. He is not joining forces but only supporting Moon Jae-in.
Looking at the two candidates, it may have been preordained that it would have to be Ahn to back down. Moon had fewer options.
Mr. Moon is and was simply a politician. Ahn, on the other hand, is a medical doctor, a software mogul and a dean of Korea’s most prestigious university. In other words, in spite how passionate Ahn may be, he has more than three respected occupations to resume. Moon has just one, and if he had acquiesced to Ahn, his solo career would have been set back.
Like North Korea, which plays aggressively with a bad hand of cards in diplomacy, Moon and his supporters had few if any options other than to insist on leading the liberal cause. As a result, they were forced to focus solely on one feasible outcome.
Ahn was like the U.S. in the sense that he and his followers have had almost too many options, regardless of this current focus. As much as his clique wished to come out on top, they knew they could walk away and win some other day.
Furthermore, as recent reports show, Park Geun-hye of the conservatives has been strengthened by this outcome.
Whereas the overwhelming support for Moon had come from within the greater DUP, Ahn has been leading a broader-based citizens group. Consequently, almost a quarter of Ahn’s independent followers are indicating they are switching their support to Ms. Park rather than supporting Moon and the DUP.
All of this plays poorly for South Korean politics.
Consider five years ago, when the old Grand National Party attempted to put together a coherent political platform as part of their campaign for the Blue House. Furthermore, there was an open primary election among candidates where Lee Myung-bak barely squeezed out Park Geun-hye.
Now consider that Ahn Cheol-soo jumped into the fray as a major political reformer. Many of his notions on first bounce seemed quite good.
But when pundits began teasing these ideas out and considering how the notions may be practically implemented, the Ahn camp could only suggest their genius leader would eventually figure out the details, or at least attract the governance talent to deal with the particulars.
In other words, as much as Mr. Ahn champions badly needed political form, he follows the old model that largely hobbles Korean and other Asian democracies. That is, rather than championing a specific and reasonably detailed platform of reforms, he largely relies on his charismatic presence to rally the masses.
Well, how many times have we seen that before?
If anything that Ahn and Moon have in common it’s a shared ideology that largely can be traced back to the democracy movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Fundamentally, at a high level, most South Koreans agree with these principles of genuine participatory democracy that does not overly favor the ruling class largely made up of families running the chaebol conglomerates. The shared problem is that this ideology remains more of a set of ideals than well thought out strategies for needed political reform.
But political reform is obviously overdue.
The widening economic and opportunity gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen and to exasperate the electorate. Five years ago, the conservatives won by a landslide after ten years of progressive rule that was marked by its ideals and poor governance. But during the past five years, the voters have been regularly reminded by the conservatives’ habitual corruption and cynicism.
The conservatives, regardless of their political party’s name, have alienated the general masses so much that one may say that in this presidential vote, it’s the DUP’s election to lose. And, by golly, they may just do that.
One only has to look to the recent U.S. elections where the Republicans, too, had general voter discontent working in their favor. They, too, had an election to lose.
The Republicans call themselves the GOP, or “Grand Old Party.” But this year the GOP transformed itself into the Grumpy Old White Men’s Party by clinging to a far-right ideology inflexibly rooted in the 20th Century without adequate, practical regard for current times. Similarly, South Korea’s progressive camp seems unable to extricate itself from an ageing ideology in favor of truly pragmatic policies.
Recently, during a BBC-broadcasted debate, Tony Blair suggested that ideology-based politics is something more in keeping with the 20th Century; whereas today, what nations need are sets of ideology-free practical programs.
Obama seemed to have understood this principle better than Romney. Based on what we have seen so far, we may well be witnessing Korea’s liberals falling into the same trap as the one that caught America’s conservatives.
By Tom Coyner. Senior Adviser to IPG.