Our Madam President-elect
Park promises compassionate conservatism
By Kim Tong-hyung
While the conditions seemed ripe for replacing the party in power, a sharply divided nation voted to give the conservatives five more years to get the economy straight.
Park, 60, the daughter of assassinated military strongman Park Chung-hee, and a Saenuri Party veteran, secured 51.6 percent of the vote versus the Democratic United Party (DUP) nominee’s 48 percent as of 00:30 a.m. Thursday, when about 90 percent of the ballots had been counted.
Replacing Saenuri Party alumni Lee Myung-bak as the country’s most powerful individual, Park will face the challenge of governing a deeply polarized nation struggling to cope with a frail economy, eroding living standards and social dysfunction.
In a victory speech in front of her supporters in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, Park vowed to follow through on her commitment to open a new era of conservative politics that better protect working-class interests.
''I will become a president who improves living standards and always delivers on promises made,’’ she said.
''This election is your victory. The passion to overcome the economic crisis and put the economy back on track has prevailed.’’
A dejected Moon congratulated Park on her victory and apologized to his supporters for coming up short.
''I did my best, but it wasn’t good enough,’’ he said.
''I admit defeat. But this is my defeat and not a defeat of the people who showed the passion and desire for new politics.’’
It was an easier win for Park than had been projected by pre-election polls, which suggested that the race was on a knife edge. This was the first time since free elections began in 1987 that the winning candidate garnered more than half of the votes cast.
Park had been considered as the favorite for most of the presidential season. However, Moon managed to give her a late scare in the past couple of weeks after former independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo agreed to ride shot-gun on his campaign trail.
A roar of celebration shook the Saenuri Party campaign headquarters in Seoul when television networks began projecting Park as the winner around 9 p.m., even as ballots were still being counted in many regions where voters had waited in longer lines.
It was a tougher victory than the one posted by Lee five years ago when he attracted 48.7 percent of the votes to crush his closest competitor Chung Dong-young, a DUP heavyweight, who managed just support of 26.1 percent.
However, the right-leaning ruling party might rate Park’s win as the bigger achievement as she had to beat not only a pesky Moon, but distance herself from the lame-duck incumbent, now as popular as gout amid a worsening economy and after a slew of corruption scandals.
Park will inherit an ideal environment as head-of-state, with the National Assembly under the control of the Saenuri Party and positioned to benefit from a consistency in policies.
She will be returning to the presidential residence for the first time in more than three decades after she left it following the assassination of her father, Park Chung-hee, by his own spy chief in 1979. Her mother had been murdered five years earlier, thrusting the then-22-year-old into the role of ''first lady’’ with responsibilities to receive the spouses of foreign heads of state.
The election has been as much about the past as the future, perhaps an inevitable clash between the collective memories of the country’s impressive process of industrialization and its bloody transition toward a democracy.
Park’s campaign relied heavily on the older generation of voters, who credit her father with orchestrating a process of rapid industrialization that produced a magnitude of changes that took a whole century for European countries. The vote suggests they continue to be more forgiving about his bloody record of civilian oppression.
The under-40 voters heavily favored Moon, the former human rights lawyer who emerged as the political heir of the late Roh Moo-hyun after the former president leaped to his death in 2009.
For all their differences, Park and Moon put forth similar policies on politics, society and the economy, speechifying about opening a new era of centralist politics aimed at combating inequality without hurting growth.
And Park admits she will have to be more engaging with North Korea than Lee, whose stubbornly hard-line stance has been blamed for diminishing the South’s role in international efforts to pressure Pyongyang and derail its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
It was a crushing defeat for Moon, who earlier in the day seemed inspired by the higher-than-expected voter turnout of 75.8 percent, apparently driven by the increased participation of voters in their 20s and 30s.
Perhaps the DUP nominee was wrong to place the fate of his candidacy in the hands of an indecisive Ahn, who likely will replace him as the next hope for the liberals.
Ahn, a millionaire computer software guru and influential public speaker, bitterly withdrew from the presidential race in November after his talks to merge candidacies with Moon fell through. He then flip-flopped for weeks, leaving Moon gasping for his help, only to commit to the DUP camp a couple of weeks before polling day under pressure from supporters.
This was after Moon’s prolonged waiting game, which reached a low point when he braved a snowstorm to reach Ahn’s house in downtown Seoul, only to be stood up. This had already deprived him of a crucial window to promote his policies and differentiate them from Park. Wishy-washiness is presumably not a quality voters want to find in their leaders.
And many conservative voters may have been put off by Moon’s stubborn defense of the ''Sunshine Policy’’ of engaging North Korea, pursued under the governments of the late Kim Dae-jung and Roh, which provided the regime with economic assistance in the hope of softening the regime’s combative behavior.
The approach is now looking more like a failure after a series of nuclear tests and an advancement in long-range missile capabilities reported from the North.
It could also be said that the DUP repeated the same strategic mistake that lost them the parliamentary elections in April, focusing on voters in the Seoul metropolitan area and the Busan-South Gyeongsang Province region at the cost of isolating other areas. Moon followed a similar campaign route, while Park barnstormed more broadly across the country.
It was a telling sign when DUP members in other regions questioned why Moon was providing regionally-specific policies for the Busan-South Gyeongsang Province zone but nowhere else. The hapless answer from campaign headquarters was that regional policies were best when written by the party’s regional units.