Ahn Cheol-soo’s lack of confidence

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.

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[The Korea Herald] Has populism taken over politics?

Ahead of the 2012 National Assembly elections, candidates reliably made big promises to the electorate. Accordingly, related concerns about political populism became a major topic of debate within and outside of the political sphere. — John.

By John Power

It’s a charge both the ruling and opposition parties have faced since election season began: Unrealistic campaign promises, with little regard for how to pay for them or their long-term consequences, point to one thing ― populism.

Last month, a group of business organizations including the Federation of Korean Industries released a joint statement cautioning against reckless pledges at election time.

“Campaign pledges should be tailored to reflect the current economic environment facing the country and the government’s fiscal capabilities,” the statement warned.

The Saenuri Party’s list of pledges for the April 11 election includes additional spending of 89 trillion won ($79 billion) on welfare, health and education over the next five years. The opposition Democratic United Party is pledging 164.7 trillion won in similar spending over the same time frame.

A recent “conservative” estimate by the Finance Ministry put the cost of implementing all the two main parties’ pledges at 268 trillion won, considerably above either party’s own estimate.

Other pledges accused of being populist include both parties’ commitment to build an airport in the southeast of the country, the DUP’s vow to abandon nuclear energy and the Saenuri Party’s to quadruple the monthly wage given to military conscripts.

Both the Saenuri Party, headed by Park Geun-hye (upper photo), and the Democratic United Party, headed by Han Myeong-sook (bottom), have been accused of populism in their election promises. (The Korea Herald)

Challenging such perceived electoral pandering with gusto, the Maeil Business, a vernacular daily, even published the so-called Maekyung Populism Index as part of its “monitoring mission against populist policies.”

International attention, too, has honed in on the issue, with a March 7 Wall Street Journal editorial praising Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan for having “the guts to stand up to such economic populism.”

Unsurprisingly, the political establishment has rejected the charges.

“See what the Lee (Myung-bak) government has done as it attacks ‘populism’ on one hand and calls for financial stability on the other? The government and the ruling party cut taxes by around 100 trillion won in the past five years for the rich, spent 30 trillion won on the Four River Project. It is nonsense that they are supporting financial stability,” Park Joo-sun, a lawmaker from the Democratic United Party, told Voice.

Kim Jong-in, a member of the Saenuri Party’s leadership council, in February similarly hit back, calling the Finance Ministry’s intervention in the debate inappropriate and “unprecedented.”

There is a difference, politicians may argue, between reckless populism and listening to the will of the people. Accordingly, what all parties have stressed in this election cycle is a desire for “new” politics that reconnects with the public.

Karl Friedhoff, a program officer at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said that the timing of the sudden drive to ramp up spending inevitably leaves parties open to accusations of populism.

“The timing of it all is the real give away. Nothing in society has changed all that drastically. There were always the poor. There were always the rich. And every year, for the past decade at least, Korea has reached a new level of affluence. So, why this push all of a sudden?” he said.

But pledges to, for example, increase welfare spending shouldn’t automatically be labeled populist, especially, Friedhoff said, as they reflect very real public demand.

“Korea has a weak safety net, that is not in question. Moreover, according to the Asan Institute’s survey, the issue of redistribution has been the second most important, after job creation, for the past twelve months. The issue of redistribution and the economy are clearly linked. There are three measurements for the economy. The first is absolute … The second is relative … The final way is the one less talked about: perceived growth.

“So, people hear that the Korean economy is growing. But when we ask them in our survey about how they feel about their own personal economic well-being, a majority perceive their own economic well-being to be getting worse. And that has been true since we started the poll in January 2011.”

Cho Heung-seek, a politician science professor at Seoul National University, said that populism in Korea politics is nothing new, but is characterized by some distinctly local features.

“I don’t think populism has become a defining feature of this election campaign, rather, I think populism has always existed at election time in Korea … I think Korean politics tends to utilize characteristics that Korean people are rich in emotion,” said Cho.

Korean politics’ entrenched regionalism, too, plays a part, especially when it comes to grand projects such as the plan to build a new airport in the southeast of the country.

“Although Korean politics’ regionalism has gone down in recent years, I think regionalism is still the problem for encouraging big projects in certain areas for political gain,” said Cho.

The revived airport plan, previously an election pledge of President Lee Myung-bak before it was scrapped on economic feasibility grounds in March last year, has an estimated price tag of at least 9.8. trillion won. At present, 11 out of the country’s 14 local airports are loss-makers.

But if populist rhetoric is nothing new, Moon Seung-sook, a Korean-born-and-raised sociology professor at Vassar University in New York State, sees this election as noteworthy for how the debate on populism has been framed.

“The current national assembly election is very much affected by the resignation of Oh Se-hoon, former mayor of Seoul, who ignited the showdown between the ruling party and the opposition party concerning the free school lunch program. The debate was framed as a contest between irresponsible populism and practical considerations by Oh,” said Moon.

Moon, however, doesn’t see populist tendencies as being especially representative of Korean politics, so much as reflecting the failures of representative democracy generally.

“I don’t think Korean politics is particularly susceptible to populism. I see it as a symptom of mass democracy which has failed to deliver democracy and social justice at a deeper and more substantial level. That is, populism is a rhetorical substitute for the real,” she said.

She adds, however, that Koreans may be more sensitive to disparities in wealth than citizens of other countries, giving impetus to party plans to raise taxes on the wealthy and curb chaebol power.

“I see such emphasis as an example of populism in contemporary mass democracy, which we also see a lot here in U.S. politics. If I look hard into the Korean culture and history, Koreans may be more sensitive to inequality and status differences ― than Americans for example ― because of relatively strong nationalism and belief in homogenous ethnicity ― especially among older generations.”

During the campaign for last October’s Seoul mayoral by-election, conservative candidate Na Kyung-won of the Grand National Party, the former name of the Saenuri Party, faced criticism over what were later revealed to be false accusations of lavish spending on skin care. President Lee came in for similarly-themed attacks when his granddaughter was photographed wearing an expensive Moncler band jacket during a family outing with the president.

Widespread dissatisfaction with established politics has surely been fuel for the populist impulse. But such antipathy could find an outlet divorced from party politics entirely, believes Friedhoff. He sees youth disillusionment in particular as potentially transformative ― even more so in the event of a conservative electoral victory.

“Their dissatisfaction is real and it doesn’t really have any outlet. Where that energy will be directed is difficult to say. But, I think if the (Saenuri Party) is somehow able to win a narrow majority, the disappointment and frustration of the youth is going to be more than anyone expected. And again, how that frustration will express itself is anyone’s guess. … It could be in an outward form, i.e. protests. Or it could be a more internal movement, where those in their twenties just see no way to have their voice heard, and effectively give up on the democratic process.”

[The Korea Herald] Can Korea break the two-party mold?

Numerous smaller political parties have come and gone in Korea, which in recent years has tended toward what is essentially a two-party system. Ahead of the 2012 National Assembly elections, a number of minor players, including the then new Korea Vision Party, hoped to make their mark on the political landscape. The results of the election, however, mostly reinforced the status quo, with the conservative Saenuri Party retaining its majority, and the liberal Democratic Party taking most of the remaining seats. The remaining handful went to the left-wing Unified Progressive Party and Progressive Justice Party and a small number of independents.  — John.

By John Power

Korea, like so many democracies, broadly fits the definition of a two-party system made up of liberal and conservative camps.

Yet its two-party mold remains young and fragile compared to countries such as the U.S., where power has passed between the same two parties without interruption for more than 150 years. Korean parties rarely last more than a few years before a name change, merger or outright dissolution, while the National Assembly typically accommodates a number of small parties aside from the big two.

In the country’s first free presidential election in 1987, not two, but three major parties vied for Korean politics’ top job. The conservative Democratic Justice Party’s Roh Tae-woo clinched victory, benefiting from a spilt in the liberal vote between the Reunification Democratic Party’s Kim Young-sam and Party for Peace and Democracy’s Kim Dae-jung. Kim Jong-pil, the founder of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the precursor to the National Intelligence Service, came a distant fourth on the conservative opposition New Democratic Republican Party ticket. For the next election in 1992, Kim Young-sam merged his party with Roh’s ruling bloc, creating a clearer two-party spilt and ultimately winning Kim the Blue House. Parliamentary elections, since 2000 in particular, have tended toward reinforcing the presence of two major parties and a number of bit players.

Park Se-il speaks at a press conference for the recently formed Korea Vision Party last month. Park’s party hopes to shake up the two-party status quo. (Yonhap News)

“The first reason is the political parties are largely based on regionalism, Jeolla regionalism and Honam regionalism,” Kyung Hee University politics professor Yun Seong-yi told Voice.

“So unless the regionalism breaks down, there is not much chance to have a multi-party system in Korea. We also have a sharp competition or clash between the liberals and the conservatives nowadays. People want to have two distinctive ideological parties.”

The election system, which sees 246 out of 299 seats chosen in single seat constituencies favoring bigger parties, is also a factor.

“Generally speaking, single-member constituencies tend to bring about two-party systems,” noted Hong Deuk-pyo, a political science professor at Incheon’s Inha University.

The upcoming April 11 general election, as a clash between the recently renamed Saenuri Party and Democratic United Party, would appear to continue the two-party mold. What could be a game-changer, however, is the pre-election alliance of the DUP with the minor Unified Progressive Party. With the two big parties expected to take 130-145 seats each, the far-left UPP could become kingmaker in the next Assembly, even if it only wins the roughly15 seats predicted by opinion polls.

“After the election the UPP and DUP will cooperate to pass laws, but case by case,” said Hong. “It is obvious that the UPP and DUP are going to keep their pace by checking the Saenuri Party in the National Assembly along with searching for ways for cooperation to win the upcoming presidential election.”

Another challenger to the two-party status quo is the recently formed center-right Korea Vision Party, headed by former Saenuri Party member and Hansun Foundation chief Park Se-il.

“We were established in order to break that chain (of power moving between two major parties),” said Park’s deputy chief of staff Lee Sang-baek. “Both parties have been based in certain regions, as you know. For instance, the Saenuri Party is very strong in the Gyeongsang area whereas DUP is very comfortable and strong in Jeolla. But instead of regionalism, KVP hopes to create values that we believe in. Instead of a region, we want to be Korea-based party based on our ideology.”

Lee, whose party is fielding 27 single-seat constituency and eight proportional representation candidates, accepts that is “very difficult to break that barrier” and make an impact as a third party. But he sees the party’s electoral bid as “a good and meaningful experiment.”

Nor is the party concerned about the possibility of splitting the ― in this case conservative ― vote and handing power to the other side, the curse of so many third-party bids in two-party set-ups.

“I don’t think we are splitting the conservative vote,” said Lee. “Basically we are creating a new definition of conservative in this society. That why the KVP is trying to come into play, come in to provide more reasonable and reform-minded conservative policies.”

Yang Seung-ham, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that Koreans’ lack of a unifying ideology leaves the door open to third or fourth parties.

“At present, Korean political positions are diversified according to region, income, age and ideology. The major parties are not enough to embrace the complicated differences. And 40 to 50 percent of Korean voters do not identify themselves with any political party due to political apathy and indifference. Therefore, there is always room for a third or fourth party,” he said.

But much depends on the presence of a major figure to rally around, said Yang. Korean politics has long been personality-driven: Park Geun-hye maintains considerable allure and influence despite her reputation for reticence on policy issues, while former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun each founded the parties that carried them to power and continue to be revered in liberal circles.

“Unlike the 1987 election, a third party may not present their own candidate this time because they don’t have a prominent figure to compete with the two major party candidates,” said Yang. “Only in the case that professor Ahn Cheol-soo runs for the presidency, then there will be more than two major figures. Or a person with the support of professor Ahn might become a third major figure in the upcoming presidential election.”

Yun attributes the penchant of Korea’s “2.5-party system” for personality politics in part to the tendency of parties to distinguish themselves by region rather than ideology, making it “much easier to base (them) on their political leaders and personalities.”

This, argues Hong, restricts voter choice, raising the need for a third, “moderate” party to act as a broker between the two “polarized” major parties.

As Gregory Henderson mentioned, politics of vortex have been one of the distinct characteristics of Korean politics since 1948,” said Hong. “Political parties have served as political machines for the prominent political elites in their striving for the presidential job. … Grouping around powerful figures is one of the negative factors that restricts voters’ options, but their choice affects party alignment.”

The emergence of a full-blown multi-party system, while increasing voter choice, would make coalition governments more of a norm, potentially increasing political instability. Their perceived instability has made the Korean public wary of such arrangements, according to Yang.

“Political coalitions are unstable in nature. It is particularly so in Korea, because dialogue, discussion, persuasion, negotiation, cooperation and tolerance are the concepts to be more developed in Korean politics. A coalition is more like a marriage of convenience for political purposes,” he said.

This makes the entrenchment, rather than weakening, of the two-party system more likely in the future.

“I think Korea will move toward the two-party system in the future as Korean democracy matures gradually,” said Yang. “At the moment the Korean political parties are not based on policy orientation but are catch-all parties. The political parties are the verge of the democratization process.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)