The following op-ed was originally written for translation for Newsweek KoreaKorea. — John.
The announcement Sunday that political maverick Ahn Cheol-soo and Democratic Party chairman Kim Han-gil will merge forces to form a new liberal party has taken many by surprise. The Joongang Daily, the English-language edition of the country’s second-biggest daily , referred to the development as a “political shocker,” while Yonhap News Agency more soberly described the move as a “surprise.”
The decision is surprising because Ahn’s camp had recently announced that his New Political Vision Party would officially launch by the end of the month. But perhaps a more fundamental reason is that a politician with enormous voter appeal and potential political capital has yet again scuppered the opportunity to be an influential independent political force. In recent surveys, Ahn’s fledging party had polled well ahead of the DP. In a Gallup Korea poll in December, Ahn’s party even came within three percentage points of the Saenuri Party, an extremely impressive showing for a party challenging a popular president in the relatively early days of her administration. Considering that support for the conservatives will almost inevitably decline as the administration wears on, Ahn had reason to believe that he could seriously challenge for a majority at the National Assembly and/or the presidency in 2017.
The core of Ahn’s appeal has always been his outsider status. As a newcomer to political life, he conveyed to voters, and the young in particular, an image of a successful but socially-minded businessman largely untainted by the murky dealings of politics. By merging his party with an unpopular opposition before it has even begun, Ahn has essentially become part of the establishment, losing in the process one of his most attractive qualities.
Ahn, of course, has form when it comes to blinking at the last minute. After first entering the public conscience as a potential political force during the race for Seoul mayor in 2011, Ahn ultimately declined to run and endorsed current mayor Park Won-soon. A year later, Ahn stepped out of the race for the presidency to allow DP candidate Moon Jae-in make an uncontested pitch for liberal-leaning votes.
It is true that Ahn’s latest political play is less of a retreat than the climb downs of 2011 and 2012. He will presumably have considerable influence over the future direction of the main opposition block. But it nevertheless hints again at a weakness that has dogged him from the beginning: Ahn may have political allure while not necessarily being a very good politician.
Behind the optimism and hope for change, the truth remains that politics is a game of strategy. It isn’t won by good intentions or moral authority alone. Ahn may have wagered that a chance to influence the second-most powerful political party in the country is worth sacrificing his independence and outsider appeal, but any such immediate gain in power is likely to be offset by the damage done to the Ahn brand. After all, what proportion of the 32 percent of the electorate who said they supported Ahn in December will be repelled by his merger with the DP, which received just 10 percent support in the same poll?
Were he a shrewder politician, Ahn would have gone ahead with the party launch, devised a coherent identify and set of policies, and worked to cultivate support across society. Then, Ahn simply had to bide his time. The elections in 2017 are still more than three years away, leaving Ahn ample time to explore what level of support he could control by election time. If joining forces to avoid splitting the liberal vote makes electoral sense now, what about in a year, or two, or three? If his efforts to grow the party proved particularly successful, Ahn could have committed once and for all to going it alone for one or both of the elections. If prospects appeared less promising, Ahn’s party could have formed a loose pre-election alliance with the DP, allowing it to still maintain a distinct identity, with a view to forming a coalition government.
Coming so soon after assurances that a distinct political alternative was in the offing, and in the context of his earlier retreats, Ahn’s latest play seems more indicative of indecisiveness than any particular political vision. Each time Ahn appears on the verge of blazing a new trail in a tired political landscape, his nerves fail him. Either he isn’t quite sure what he believes, or he lacks the confidence to carry it out. Observing his brief but tumultuous political career, it is easy to get the impression that the public has more faith in Ahn Cheol-soo than Ahn Cheol-soo does.