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Personalities trump policies in S Korea vote

Many of the personalities "involved" in the poll are not standing for the presidency - two of them are dead.
Last modified: 19 Dec 2012 00:29
People wave flags during a campaign of Park Geun-hye in Seoul [Reuters]

South Korea’s election commission has given the best indication yet of how close this presidential race will be. They’ve told journalists not to expect a result until midnight on Wednesday, perhaps later. Usually it's possible to declare a winner much earlier.

Polls aren’t allowed to be published in the week before election day, but the most recent ones showed that Moon Jae-in, of the liberal Democratic United Party, was closing the gap on his conservative opponent, Park Geun-hye. Her lead was intact, but within the polls' margin of error.

Personalities have taken centre stage in this election, policies sometimes crowded out. The thing is, many of the personalities involved aren’t standing for the presidency. In fact two of them are dead.

Park Geun-hye, the 60-year-old standard-bearer of the Saenuri, or New Frontier, party would in one way be a transformative president. She would be the first female leader of this male-dominated society. Only around half of South Korean women work – one of the lowest figures in the industrialised world.

Park has tried to sell herself as the “prepared, female president”, even talking of the need for “a feminine, motherly leader” in the face of further trouble in the world economy.

But for much of the electorate, especially among her disproportionately older supporters, she will always be defined first and foremost as a daughter. Her father was Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s dictator from his takeover in 1961 until his assassination in 1979.

De-facto first lady

In the last years of his rule the young Park Geun-hye served at her father’s side as de-facto first lady, after her mother was killed in an earlier attempt on the president’s life.

Park Chung-hee’s legacy is double-edged. He pulled South Korea out of abject post-war poverty, directing its rapid industrialisation, and managing the so-called “Miracle on the Han River”. From a standing start in 1953, South Korea is now the world’s 15th biggest economy.

But Park was also an authoritarian and at times brutal leader, responsible for crushing dissent and suppressing pro-democracy campaigners. In one notorious incident in 1975, eight opposition activists were executed.

Park has spent much of her campaign trying to display proper loyalty to her father while distancing herself from criticism of his rule. A difficult line to walk, and there have been missteps along the way: she said history should be the judge over the executions; she said the coup through which he took control had been “inevitable”.

Only in September did she offer an apology to those who'd suffered under his rule.

One of those is her opponent. Moon Jae-in is a former human rights lawyer. In the 1970s, he was jailed for protesting against Park. He went straight from jail into the military, where he served in the special forces.

But it's his more recent history that defines him for many voters. He was Chief of Staff and firm friend to former President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh won election in 2002, on a politically progressive platform. But his presidency ended without making good on much of his programme, and encircled in scandal over payments to his family. Roh killed himself in 2009.

Moon is seen as Roh's descendant to almost the same degree as Park is of her father. Moon has also found himself apologising - for the failures of the Roh presidency - during this campaign.

All this talk of the past is something that's been criticised by the other big character that is not in this race, the software tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo. His brief foray into presidential politics ended last month when he failed to negotiate a unified candidacy with Moon, and pulled out. He chastised both candidates for trading barbs about history at the expense of the concerns of the present.

Unemployment

Those concerns are chiefly about the economy. South Korean growth has slowed to a projected 2.4 per cent this year. Not bad in global terms, but cause for worry when combined with a strengthening currency, growing household debt, and perhaps most crucially, growing inequality.

A third of the workforce is in irregular employment. More than three million people are on the minimum wage. There's a sense that too narrow a slice of society has benefited from South Korea's economic miracle. It was within this constituency that Ahn Cheol-soo found much of his support.

Both remaining candidates have recognised that in their talk of greater welfare provision and "economic democratisation" - which has often come in the form of bashing the giant family-run conglomerates, the Chaebols.

After a somewhat frosty concession speech, Ahn has begun to endorse Moon more enthusiastically. But the question is whether enough of his supporters will be convinced to go out and vote for the old-fashioned liberal as opposed to the independent insurgent that they wanted to back.

With older voters thinking about presidents' past, and younger ones about a president who might have been, the man and woman who are actually vying to take up that office can now only wait and see what influence the names that aren't on the ballot papers will have, once they're counted.