The Seoul mayoral race
No mayoral race for Seoul has drawn as much interest as the one scheduled for Oct. 26.
This is because of its likely impact on the prospects of who might win in the next year’s big elections for the National Assembly and the presidency. The mayoral bi-election became necessary to fill the vacancy created by former mayor Oh Se-hoon’s resignation after an unsuccessful referendum on the issue of free lunch for school children.
The referendum was virtually aborted as it failed to gain the minimum 33 percent participation of eligible voters, and the city by law could not even open the boxes to see who voted for or against the free lunch proposal. Until that fatal moment, former mayor Oh was considered as one of the potential presidential nominees for 2012 for the Grand National Party (GNP). Oh lost in an unnecessary political gamble he chose and which his party (GNP) opposed.
Oh’s resort to direct democracy was motivated by an ill-conceived attempt to override the opposition of his city council dominated by the Democratic Party (DP). He failed to read the citizens’ dissatisfaction with and distrust of the governing establishment, including the two major parties in Korea.
Campaigns for the Oct. 26 election are being carried out under these unfavorable public circumstances against the political establishment, which explains the short-lived but phenomenal popularity of Ahn Chul-soo, a university professor and a computer vaccine inventor, as a mayoral candidate. Ahn had even surpassed the GNP’s strongest presumptive presidential candidate, Park Geun-hye, in opinion polls, but he later conceded to Park Won-woon, a progressive civic activist lawyer as a candidate of the citizens, not of any political party.
The same public discontent with the established political institution explains why the far right conservative civic organizations supported lawyer Lee Suk-yun as a non-GNP conservative candidate, who had dropped out of the race after finding his support rate was too low to compete.
With Lee’s withdrawal, National Assemblywoman Na Kyung-won was fixed as the conservative candidate for the GNP and all other conservative pro-government circles. Na is likely to have the support of both GNP fractions ― pro-Lee Myung-bak and pro-Park Geun-hye ― and possibly the more conservative civic organizations, which had supported Lee Suk-yun, whose complaint was that the GNP is not conservative enough, like the Tea Party supporters complaining about the Republican Party.
The GNP and its supporters believe that Park Geun-hye’s campaigning for candidate Na is critical to her success. Park has a track record of attracting votes as an election magnet. However, the former GNP chairwoman has been selective and reluctant to campaign for GNP candidates to the chagrin of the party’s leaders.
This time, from every indication Park Geun-hye, like it or not, will have to campaign for her party candidate Na, a political risk hard for Park to avoid. If Na fails with Park’s support, that will damage her competitiveness for 2012. If Na fails without Park’s support, that is if Park does not campaign for Na, Park would be blamed for such a defeat. However, even if this happened, it would not be a fatal blow to Park.
On the opposition side, the two major competitors ― the DP’s female candidate Park Young-sun and ``citizen candidate” Park Won-soon ― finished their first round of determining a single candidate to represent opposition camps. In a poll of 1,400 ``jurors” (actually judges), after watching a three-way TV debate, including the Democratic Labor Party candidate, 54 percent voted in support for the citizens’ candidate and 44 percent for the DP choice.
If the result of the debate, which counts for 30 percent of the final decision, showed anything, an attack-dog tactic against another competitor of the same camp backfired. National Assemblywoman Park is normally credited for asking sharp probing questions at legislative hearings against ranking government witnesses. However, the same aggressively negative approach seemed to have worked against her.
They have two more rounds to go through. The second is a telephone poll, which also counts for 30 percent with result will be announced on Oct. 2. The progressive lawyer may have an upper hand if the outcome of previous polls is sustained.
However, the big day comes on Oct. 3, when 30,000 opposition members meet to vote for their choice between the two. The DP candidate has an advantage in the third round, as she is in a better position to mobilize her party’s organizational support. The result of the third round counts for 40 percent.
The mayoral election will be fought between the GNP candidate and either a DP candidate or a citizen candidate. The campaign issues are plenty ― consumer prices, welfare, housing, employment, corruption,. In an election campaign defense is normally more difficult than offense, and the GNP is in defense mode.
Another disadvantage for the GNP is that the ruling party is not putting on an interesting show of choosing its candidate as the DP and the opposition camps are joining together to attract the interest of the voters. Corruption charges involving President Lee’s former aides are also unwelcome developments. The Lee administration is not viewed as an asset to the GNP in this election.
Perhaps the biggest single most important campaign issue would be welfare. The GNP is rushing to decide a party platform, without which Park Geun-hye would continue to hesitate to support the GNP candidate. Park Geun-hye’s position is generally in the same direction as the Democratic Party’s ``universal welfare,” which is opposed by the conservatives.
If an opposition candidate wins the mayoral election, it would be because of the voters’ discontent with the ruling camp, including the administration and the government party, not because of the accomplishment of, or support for the opposition camp. People still want change and hope ― a classic cliché in election campaigns.
The GNP’s challenge is to convince the voters how its new mayor would be different from the previous one. If the GNP loses the mayoral election, it would be more difficult to win next year’s big elections. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at SAIS Johns Hopkins University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.