Yoon wins tightest race in S. Korean history, faces challenge of healing divided nation

Posted on : 2022-03-10 15:44 KST Modified on : 2022-03-10 15:44 KST
Yoon’s journey from prosecutor general to president-elect has been unprecedented in many respects, consistently dogged by scandal, and raised questions over whether he is fit to hold the most powerful position in the country
South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol throws his signature uppercut gesture for supporters at a rally at the People Power Party headquarters in Seoul’s Yeouido, early on March 10. (pool photo)
South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol throws his signature uppercut gesture for supporters at a rally at the People Power Party headquarters in Seoul’s Yeouido, early on March 10. (pool photo)

Yoon Suk-yeol has been elected South Korea’s next president just one year after he ended a 27-year career in the country’s prosecution service to join the race for the Blue House. Never before has a Korean politician sought the presidency — and won it — as the first step in a political career.

Yoon was able to maintain his momentum from the moment he launched his bid until his victory because the current administration lost the confidence of the public over its botched real estate policies and because of frustration with perceived hypocrisy in the ruling Democratic Party.

After Yoon came to prominence through his squabbles with President Moon Jae-in, the conservatives chose him as the ideal person to guide their party back to power. In August last year, he joined the rudderless People Power Party and received the unstinting support of the party faithful, which ultimately catapulted him to the presidency.

Yoon will be Korea’s first president since direct democratic elections were adopted in 1987 to have never before held elected office, which has prompted both hopes and fears about his upcoming years in the Blue House.

Pushing for change, the public overlooked Yoon’s flaws

Yoon was elected president 371 days after stepping down as prosecutor general. All presidents since 1987 have spent time in the National Assembly: Kim Young-sam served nine terms, Kim Dae-jung served six, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak both had two, Park Geun-hye had five, and most recently, Moon Jae-in had one.

The biggest difference between Yoon and previous presidents is that they had spent years or decades in the political trenches before rising to the most powerful position in the country. Throughout his campaign, Yoon had underscored the advantages of being a political neophyte, stressing that “I don’t owe political favors to anybody” and that “my only debt is to the Korean people.”

Distrust in “politics as usual” and angry voters’ desire for change have resulted in supreme authority being given to a newcomer to politics. After throwing his hat into the ring, Yoon took aim at the Moon administration to draw attention to himself and monopolize that desire for change.

Throughout the race, Yoon was dogged by issues that could have torpedoed him, including scandals involving his wife and mother-in-law, controversy over his ties to cult figures, and accusations that he had incited opposition figures to file criminal complaints against members of the ruling party. But voters were so eager for change that they overlooked all those issues.

That’s why Yoon’s victory at the polls shouldn’t be taken as evidence that Korean voters regard him as particularly competent or qualified to be president. Questions remain about whether he has even offered the kind of new ideas and reforms that are expected of political outsiders.

The fact that Yoon stepped down as prosecutor general without addressing accusations that he’d violated his political neutrality and then immediately made a successful bid for president could come back to haunt him, some say.

“It’s very concerning that the head of a law enforcement agency was immediately named the presidential candidate for the leading opposition party and was elected president without time for political training or planning,” said Jhee Byong-kuen, a professor of political science at Chosun University.

Other pundits have voiced sharp concerns about the philosophy and message that Yoon expressed during his campaign. Many critics have said that his message focused on stirring up, rather than mending, divisions of gender, ideology and class and that he adopted an overtly divisive strategy in his campaign.

Some of Yoon’s remarks — “People ought to work hard for up to 120 hours a week, and they can rest as much as they like later” and “The destitute and uneducated don’t even know what freedom is” — revealed a twisted bias toward the interest of capital and the corporate world. He has also shown little interest in helping the needy, rejecting discrimination, or accommodating minority groups.

The hostile messages that Yoon has sent to North Korea and China also foster concerns about whether he’ll be able to play a meaningful role in multilateral diplomacy on a global stage.

Considering how hard Yoon swerved to the right as he sought to solidify his support base, experts say his primary task now is to pivot toward national unity.

“Leading up to election day, Yoon adopted a daring campaign of focusing on things like abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family instead of talking about unity. That paid dividends with male supporters in their 20s and 30s, but he needs to remember that the president’s top priority is national unity,” said Lee Kang-yun, director of the Korea Society Opinion Institute.

“At the beginning of his presidency, Yoon will need to work on tamping down the flames of conflict that he himself has fanned,” said Jhee, the professor.

Governance may be a challenge for a former prosecutor more used to giving orders than to compromise

With the next general election not scheduled until 2024, Yoon will have to reckon with the Democratic Party’s supermajority of 172 seats in the National Assembly for at least the next two years and one month. Considering that Yoon is beginning his presidency with a minority government, it will be essential for him to show his political chops with the legislature.

That environment could motivate Yoon to seek unity and expand his influence, but it also presents the risk that he’ll lose his governing momentum at the outset and prove an ineffectual president.

There are considerable areas in which a hostile opposition could trip Yoon up, including his plans to reorganize and reshape the government, his signature legislation, and his budget bills. He might end up having to watch as the Democratic Party and its allies in the opposition pass bill after bill.

Yoon sought to dissuade concerns that his agenda might be thwarted by the Democratic Party by proclaiming in his rallies that he would “achieve national unity and economic prosperity through brilliant governance with right-minded members of the Democratic Party.”

But given Yoon’s total lack of experience with legislative politics, it remains unclear whether he’ll succeed at his first attempt at governance.

“Under a dynamic presidential system, Yoon may be able to make some headway with his bulldozing personality, but for now, he appears to face some major risks. As the head of a minority government, he can’t ignore the Democratic Party, and failing to unify the country could lead to a crisis in which his approval rating plummets or he becomes a president in name only,” said Chae Jin-won, a professor at the Institute of Public Governance at Kyung Hee University.

“Whether or not it’s the right thing to do, Yoon will have no choice but to compromise with the Democratic Party if he wants to get anything done.”

Back in power just five years after impeachment, the conservatives are gaining strength among Koreans in their 20s and 30s

What has attracted as much attention as Yoon’s personal victory is the fact that Korea’s conservative party has recaptured the presidency only five years after Park Geun-hye was impeached. After direct presidential elections were adopted in Korea in 1987, the main conservative and liberal parties had traded power every 10 years, but that pattern has now been broken.

The fact that the conservatives are returning to the Blue House only five years after being basically wiped out in Park’s impeachment has big implications for the Democratic Party, too.

“We didn’t see the creation of some new political force that could surmount the conservatives’ errors. The fact that voters went back to the same old conservative party is explained by public distrust of the Democratic administration,” Jhee said.

Another limitation for the People Power Party is that it had to rely on outside help, rather than internal reform, in its rejuvenation.

“The conservative party made several failed attempts at internal reform before ultimately shifting its approach to bringing in ‘fresh blood’ from the outside. In a sense, that’s a sad thing to see in the history of a political party,” Chae said.

“We need to reflect upon the fact that Korean political parties have failed in their role of raising up people to represent the public,” Jhee observed.

Lee Kang-yun, the institute director, explained that another notable characteristic of this presidential election was the conservative leanings of Koreans in their 20s and 30s, which began as a backlash to unfair behavior. He described this as the “emergence of a new kind of conservative” represented by Yoon.

“We need to focus on how society will be impacted by these new conservatives, who differ from the flag-waving, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives of the past. Their allegiance depends on how the value of fairness trumpeted by Yoon will actually play out in his new administration,” Lee said.

“We’ll get a glimpse of that in the composition of Yoon’s transition team and in his first appointments as president.”

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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

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