Elite prosecutor vs. factory boy-turned-lawyer: Who will triumph in Korea’s presidential election?

Posted on : 2022-03-08 17:13 KST Modified on : 2022-03-08 17:43 KST
Ahn’s endorsement of Yoon has Lee Jae-myung’s campaign in crisis mode, but the election is now in the hands of the voters
A person carries their ballot to a ballot box on March 5, the second day of early voting in South Korea’s presidential election, at Seoul Station. (Yonhap News)
A person carries their ballot to a ballot box on March 5, the second day of early voting in South Korea’s presidential election, at Seoul Station. (Yonhap News)

“Our biggest fear has become a reality.”

“We’d just managed to close the gap. . .”

Democratic Party lawmakers could not hide their consternation after the announcement on the morning of March 3 that Yoon Suk-yeol and Ahn Cheol-soo had reached a deal where Ahn would drop out to allow People Power Party (PPP) presidential nominee Yoon to run as the sole major conservative candidate.

The Democratic Party lawmakers had long feared the prospect of such a deal between Yoon and Ahn. Whichever of them dropped out, it would put a victory for Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung further out of reach.

This explains why Lee kept trying to woo Ahn with promises of a “unity administration.”

He was doing everything in his power to prevent Ahn from striking a deal with Yoon. In the end, the Democratic Party’s strategy failed.

What impact will Yoon and Ahn’s deal have on the election landscape?

On March 4, National Barometer Survey (NBS) findings were announced from polling conducted over the three-day period from Feb. 28 to March 2, just before the deal was announced. Those results showed Lee and Yoon tied at 40%, with Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jung drawing 2% and Ahn picking up 9% of support.

Other survey results were announced by the three major terrestrial TV networks the same day, based on polling conducted on March 1 and 2. Those findings had Lee with 37.1% to Yoon’s 42.1%, while Sim drew 1.8% and Ahn 7.4%. (More details are available at the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission website.)

Never in the history of South Korean presidential elections has the candidate ranked second in polling overtaken the first-ranked candidate during the final week before the election, when the announcement of additional polling results is prohibited.

If even half the supporters who backed Ahn end up casting a vote for Yoon, that would put the PPP candidate far ahead of Lee. Another potential variable is the bandwagon effect in the wake of the deal.

This means a slightly greater likelihood that Yoon will come out on top in the presidential election — a fact that even Democratic Party lawmakers acknowledged.

Who will win — the rags-to-riches lawyer or the SNU-educated prosecutor?

Let’s take a closer look at the barometer survey. Broken down by region, the results are much the same as previous public opinion polls. In Seoul, Lee Jae-myung (36%) has narrowed his gap with Yoon Suk-yeol (40%), while in the Honam region in the southwest, Lee has consolidated his support to a striking degree, at 72%.

By age group, Yoon has the lead among those aged 18-29, those in their 60s, and those aged 70 and above. Lee has the advantage among voters in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Ahn Cheol-soo had a comparatively strong showing (20%) among people aged 18-29. But who will his supporters in this age group choose when they go to the polls? That will be interesting to see.

What do you think is the political significance of Yoon and Ahn’s decision to merge their campaigns? I think that represents the combination of two of Korea’s leading elite groups.

When the two of them were going to college, many of the best students in the language arts matriculated at the law school at Seoul National University (SNU), while good scholars in the sciences often enrolled in the SNU medical school.

Yoon is a member of the “super-elite” — a graduate of SNU law school, he passed the bar exam and served as a prosecutor, eventually becoming the top prosecutor in Korea.

Ahn graduated from medical school at SNU, but instead of pursuing a career in medicine, he dedicated himself to business. In short, he’s a self-made man who has acquired both wealth and honor.

I guess that’s why I couldn’t help cringing while I was watching Yoon and Ahn announce their unified campaign on television.

“We, Ahn Cheol-soo and Yoon Suk-yeol, have decided to unite our efforts to bring about a transition of power as the first step toward making a better Korea, that is, for the sake of a better transition of power.”

“I, Ahn Cheol-soo, have agreed to endorse Yoon Suk-yeol.”

“I, Yoon Suk-yeol, accept Ahn Cheol-soo’s support and promise to achieve victory and successfully build a government of national unity.”

Ahn Cheol-soo and Yoon Suk-yeol raise their hands together at a press briefing on March 3 at the National Assembly building in Seoul’s Yeouido neighborhood announcing that Ahn has dropped out to endorse Yoon’s bid for president. (Yonhap News)
Ahn Cheol-soo and Yoon Suk-yeol raise their hands together at a press briefing on March 3 at the National Assembly building in Seoul’s Yeouido neighborhood announcing that Ahn has dropped out to endorse Yoon’s bid for president. (Yonhap News)

In their remarks and facial expressions, they looked rather like a bride and groom making the vows of holy matrimony. What did you think of that scene?

Compared with Yoon and Ahn, who were born in wealthy families and followed the path of the super-elite, Lee’s life has looked a lot different. He worked at a factory in his early years and suffered all the abuse that such a job entailed. In lieu of graduating from middle and high school, he passed an equivalency test.

Lee graduated from the law school at Chung-Ang University and went on to pass the bar exam. After working as a lawyer in Seongnam, he was elected as mayor of the city and later became governor of Gyeonggi Province. He has a unique story of rising from a child laborer at a factory to being the presidential candidate for Korea’s majority party.

Not being part of the mainstream isn’t necessarily a disadvantage in Korean presidential elections. Outsider candidates have often defeated establishment candidates since Korea’s constitution was amended to allow direct presidential elections in 1987.

Despite being a graduate of SNU’s law school and a former Supreme Court justice, Lee Hoi-chang was first defeated by Kim Dae-jung, a graduate of a commercial high school in Mokpo, and then by Roh Moo-hyun, whose highest degree was from a trade high school in Busan. Moon Jae-in, who was elected president in 2017, should also be regarded as being outside of the establishment.

How will things play out this time? If elected, Yoon will be the first graduate of SNU law school to become president. A candidate from the establishment elite will have defeated a political outsider who worked his way up from a hardscrabble existence.

Similarities with the 2012 presidential election

In terms of the election landscape and alignment, this election looks very similar in several respects to the one held ten years ago, in 2012.

First, the election is fundamentally tilted in favor of the opposition People Power Party. There’s a strong desire to bring a new party to power, which was also true in 2012.

The candidates enjoy a different amount of support this time around. In 2012, Park Geun-hye, candidate for the ruling Saenuri Party (forerunner of the PPP) had more support than the opposition party candidate. This time, the opposition party candidate (Yoon) has generally been in the lead.

Another similarity is the sudden withdrawal of a third-party candidate in the middle of the race. That candidate was Ahn Cheol-soo, both in 2012 and in 2022. The same candidate made the same choice in the same circumstances, 10 years apart — truly a rare sight in politics.

Third, there are only two competitive candidates.

The 2012 election ended up being a one-on-one race between Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in, and the supporters of the two candidates clashed head-on.

Park’s supporters were elderly people filled with nostalgia for her father, former president Park Chung-hee, while the supporters of Moon Jae-in were young people driven by a desire to avenge the death of former president Roo Moo-hyun. It was a clash between a fandom of oldsters and a fandom of youngsters — and the oldsters proved stronger.

This election is also a battle between two main candidates. If we include Sim Sang-jung, candidate for the Justice Party, it might be more accurate to say there are two major candidates and one minor one, but that doesn’t change the overall lineup.

The ages of the candidates’ supporters are somewhat different from 10 years ago. People in their 40s and 50s favor Lee Jae-myung, while people in their 60s and 70s favor Yoon. Those in their 20s and 30s are more undecided.

Fourth, the opposition party’s candidate was hurriedly decided. Moon Jae-in entered politics with a bid for the National Assembly in December 2011. It wasn’t until June 2012 that he threw his hat into the presidential ring. He was a latecomer to politics.

The book “Dec. 19: The End Is the Beginning,” which Moon published in December 2013, includes the following passage.

“To be honest, the Democratic Party and I weren’t strong enough on our own, but we had the citizens with us. We were joined by citizens who were angry about the breakdown of governance under Lee Myung-bak, citizens who were worried about historical backsliding, citizens desiring a society of principles and common sense, and citizens seeking to defend democracy,” he wrote.

“Those citizens made up for our deficiencies. They came forward to lead our election campaign. Their strength is what allowed me to become the candidate of the Democratic Party only a few months after entering politics.”

If we replace the Democratic Party with the People Power Party and Lee Myung-bak with Moon Jae-in, that passage could very well have been written by Yoon Suk-yeol. Truly amazing, isn’t it?

In the end, the question we’re most interested in for the 2022 presidential election is whether Lee Jae-myung can overcome the crisis of Yoon and Ahn’s merger and be elected president, just as Park Geun-hye did in the 2012 election.

To cut to the chase, I don’t think that will be easy. The reason Park was elected despite Moon and Ahn’s merger in 2012 was that her fandom — including fans of Park Chung-hee — covered a large swath of the conservative base.

In fact, something similar happened in 2002. Roh Moo-hyun managed to win despite Chung Mong-joon withdrawing his support the day before the election because he had a solid fanbase.

In a column last week titled “Desperation and identity: The 2 factors that will decide S. Korea’s presidential election,” I shared stories of how fervent Roh’s supporters had been in 2002.

One reader left the following comment. “I remember the 2002 election. My wife hadn’t been planning to vote because she’d had our firstborn just three weeks before. But Chung Mong-joon’s withdrawal of support hit her like a bolt from the blue. Though she was still recuperating from delivery, she went out to vote anyway on that cold Dec. 19. It made me cry.”

Does Lee have a trick up his sleeve?

What do you think? One of the characteristics of a fandom is that its support only grows stronger in a crisis. If Lee Jae-myung is to overcome the grave crisis of Yoon and Ahn’s campaign merger, he needs a strong fandom that will jump into action. But it’s doubtful whether his fandom is as strong as that of Park in 2012 or Roh in 2002.

There doesn’t seem to be much that Lee Jae-myung or Democratic Party lawmakers can do before election day. The candidate and lawmakers’ time has passed — now it’s time for party members and supporters to do their part. The time has come for Koreans to cast their votes.

I think that’s exactly what Lee meant when he said, “Politics might seem to be something that politicians do, but it’s actually what the people do. I trust history and the Korean people.”

Who will win the presidential election on March 9? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.

By Seong Han-yong, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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