Of the numerous national slogans Korea gives itself, discarded by each new administration, I think Dynamic Korea was the best. So dynamic is Korea, that even I—a born, raised and bred Seoulite—sometimes find myself confused.
The political arena is, of course, a bloodbath. Especially the presidential elections. Well we had all been thinking Moon Jae-in was certain to win. Just take a look at the polls. Moon’s lead was too strong to be reversed within a mere 60 days. At least that’s what we thought.
Well, guess what? It has happened. Ahn Cheol-soo, the People’s Party nominee, overtook Moon in a poll released on Sunday, though the margin was within the range of error.
South Korean pollsters lack the strictness and accuracy of their US counterparts, but at least the regularity of their activities can show us meaningful trends. And the latest is that Ahn has caught up with Moon.
Two interesting stories have contributed to this shift.
First, Ahn has demonstrated that he’s now different from how he used to be. His dramatic change in oration style garnered lots of attention during the competition for his party’s nomination:
His voice used to sound too faint and soft, giving audiences the impression that he was too gentle to survive the harsh battlespace that is Korean politics. His far too cautious words and deeds only deepened the impression.
Gan Cheol-soo, the infamous nickname awarded by netizens, sums it up. With a prefix meaning taste or saltiness, the nickname pictures him as a timid person who would rather dip than dive.
In the aftermath of the Choi Soon-sil scandal, however, Ahn strengthened his messaging. “Gan Cheol-soo has stopped dipping around” was the reaction around the web and, with his all new oration style, he literally conquered his fellow nominees.
His voice isn’t the only thing Ahn changed. In the aftermath of the fall of the Korean conservatives, both Moon and Ahn have been very critical of the former adminstration, in line with the rest of the progressive camp. But since the impeachment of ex-president Park, Ahn has fine-tuned his ideological positions. While sticking to his promise for equal opportunity for all, Ahn veered away from his initial objections to THAAD deployment and now argues that inter-governmental agreements should be respected.
Second, despite winning the Minjoo nomination, Moon is hemorrhaging the supporters of his fellow competitors. A poll after the nomination says over 60 per cent of Ahn Hee-jung’s supporters and 30 per cent of Lee Jae-myung’s have now turned to Ahn Cheol-soo.
It’s not easy to pin down exact reasons for the mass desertion, but it looks like Moon and his supporters have hurt too many feelings. During the bruising competition, Ahn Hee-jung once got too emotional and wrote on his Facebook at 2am that Moon makes others feel “put off”.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that Moon is failing to keep Minjoo party supporters on his side. Polls consistently find that Moon’s approval ratings fall short of his party’s by 10 percentage points. In other words, there is a limit to the extent he can widen his popularity.
Less than a month is left till the election and the game is a draw so far. We have no idea what the next few weeks have in store, but it’s not boredom, that’s for sure.
Parallels from the past…
The 1987 election was a huge anti-climax for those fighting for the democratization of the country. In the aftermath of massive protests, junta leader Chun Doo-hwan at last agreed to leave the presidential palace, having served two terms, and to introduce a direct election system.
While many expected the outcome to be the first activist President, Chun’s junta colleague Roh Tae-woo ended up the winner. His unexpected victory was largely due to the standoff between the two activist leaders, namely Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. The nightmare of the defeat has been haunting liberals ever since, and why they are forever calling for “candidate unification”.
The 2002 election, on the other hand, was very dramatic. Lee Hoi-chang, the conservative candidate, had been leading the polls for over nine years, including those of the 1997 election, which Kim Dae-jung won. Almost no one doubted his forthcoming victory.
The last one smiling, however, proved to be Roh Moo-hyun. He was a rather obscure figure before entering the race for his party’s nomination but he soon became the rising star of the race, which he eventually won.
A single twist doth not a drama make though. And Roh’s ratings plummeted after the rise of Chung Mong-joon, family member of the Hyundai conglomerate and, at the time, FIFA vice president. After a series of fierce debates, Roh and Chung agreed to compete for a unified candidateship. Which Roh won again. Less than a month before the election.
A day before the election day, Chung, for unclear reasons, changed his mind. He revoked his support for Roh in public at 10pm and gave Roh, who visited his house at midnight, the cold shoulder. This behavior is considered to have seriously influenced voters sentiment, and thus contributed to Roh’s narrow win over Lee Hoi-chang.