Can policy vision prevail over personality in S. Korea's presidential election?

Posted on : 2022-02-15 17:37 KST Modified on : 2022-03-04 16:32 KST
Analysts are calling for candidates to drop the mudslinging and present their vision for Korea
Presidential hopefuls (left to right) Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party, Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party pose for a photo ahead of a four-way presidential debate put on by the Journalists Association of Korea in Seoul on Friday. (pool photo)
Presidential hopefuls (left to right) Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party, Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party pose for a photo ahead of a four-way presidential debate put on by the Journalists Association of Korea in Seoul on Friday. (pool photo)

Candidates’ official campaigns for the Blue House formally kicked off on Tuesday. Candidates will have just 22 days until the election on March 9 to present their case to voters.

In the final hours before the formal start to campaigning, candidates reiterated their pledges and platforms. With a two-way race shaping up between Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party, Lee focused his message on keeping the ruling party in the Blue House for the sake of “national unity,” while Yoon led with his message of “passing judgment” on the current administration by putting a new party in power.

Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People’s Party branded himself as the “right person to flip the Blue House” while Sim Sang-jung, candidate for the minor progressive Justice Party, pledged to change the two-party system.

Although this upcoming election is being called the most distasteful election to date, with hot issues such as merging opposition campaigns and controversies surrounding candidates’ family members, experts say that this election should serve as a referendum on policies to lead Korea out of the COVID-19 crisis and into the future. 

A reset election following the pandemic

If the last presidential election was about clearing out vestiges of widespread corruption left behind by the Park Geun-hye administration, then this year’s election will be about choosing who can bring Korea out of the pandemic stronger.

Key will be which candidate can come up with the best solutions to address the polarization plaguing Korean society, which was exacerbated by the pandemic, and who can come up with the right plan to transform Korean society and bring about a new order.

Kim Yoon-cheol, a professor at Kyung Hee University, commented, “What was confirmed during the COVID-19 crisis is that the existing outdated system and practices require a reset. This election is a chance to start that process in earnest.”

Seo Bokyeung, director of The Possibility Lab, said, “The current crisis is taking place in an era in which huge change is occurring, not just at the national level, but at the global level; this is the first time that Korea is facing such a challenge from the position of a developed country.” Seo added that she thought the key term for this election would be “transforming the future.”

The problem, however, is that the candidates are not campaigning on the details of such much-needed visions for transforming the future, but are instead stuck in the past, mired in their own controversies and busy debating each other’s qualifications.

Jhee Byong-Kuen, a professor at Chosun University, noted, “The meaning of the election has greatly faded as bickering over candidates’ qualifications has become the main topic of debate.”

“It’s no longer an election in the sense of a process of providing people with the opportunity to decide and reach a social consensus on what kind of country to create,” Jhee added.

Similarly, Park Won-ho, a professor at Seoul National University, says, “Presidential elections themselves serve as a ‘marketplace of public opinion’ but in this presidential election, where controversies about individual candidates have come to the fore, debate has all but disappeared from the process.”

How to heal rifts in Korean society

Another feature of this presidential election is public sentiment’s divisions along the lines of generations, ideological blocs and gender. Experts are calling for candidates to lay a foundation for social cohesion as the two-party system will inevitably limit the effective management of state affairs, regardless of who ends up in the Blue House.

To this point, Park says that if candidates opt to campaign on division, “then it’s inevitable that there will be aftereffects,” adding that, “From the get-go, the conflict between parliamentary and presidential power will lead to serious clashes.”

Yoo Jae-il, professor at Daejeon University, commented, “Even if the People Power Party wins, they cannot carry out state affairs without cooperation from the main opposition party. Democrats won’t be able to continue [managing government affairs] in the traditional way either.”

“Korea’s political system must shift from the current majoritarian democratic system, which forces people to choose between two sides, to a pluralistic consensus democratic system,” Yoo added.

Some pointed out that presidential candidates should spearhead reforms to make the National Assembly more diverse through electoral reform, rather than recruiting figures from across the aisle as a show of "good will" by leaders. That is, rather than winning the election through sowing division then reaching out to the losing party, candidates should start cooperating now so that they can reach a consensus during the campaign period.

“Presidential candidates are talking about recruiting figures from across the aisle for the sake of harmony, but would want to be a figurehead?” Jhee asked. “In order to lead a proper system based on consensus, the current system needs to be changed and the starting point is the reform of the electoral law by introducing a proportional representation system.”

Great transformations for Korean society must form basis of campaigns

Moreover, some are also pointing out the urgency of responding to the climate crisis — a top priority for not just Korea, but the world — in addition to discussions of the industrial restructuring that will need to be carried out.

“Future-oriented growth, along with welfare, is still important to alleviate social and economic inequality caused by the widening income and asset gap,” noted Yoo. “Inclusive and sustainable growth must coincide with socially agreed upon fair growth.”

“The transition from green energy to carbon neutrality and new industries is underway, and platform competition is intensifying,” commented Kim. “We need to see approaches that nurture new industries as growth engines while adapting to the changed reality.”

Along with the transition to a new industrial structure, some are also calling for the welfare system to be changed in accordance with the changing times.

However, it has become quite clear that this election’s presidential candidates have chosen to focus only on very specific, more micro-scale promises at a time when they should actually be preparing for larger, structural change. 

“Candidates are avoiding such big-picture issues because presenting a big vision is disadvantageous in electoral engineering,” Park said. “They talk about hair-loss medication, but not about the health insurance system as a whole.”

“The crises that Korea is facing, such as overcoming the pandemic, economic growth, resolving polarization, and political reform, are addressed in perfunctory statements,” said Jhee.

“By neglecting the country's reform or policy projects, the presidential election is failing to provide an opportunity for democracy to progress.”

By Song Chae Kyung-hwa, staff reporter

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