Park Geun-hye‘s checklists
The governing Saenuri Party retained its majority-party status by winning 152 out of 300 National Assembly seats. However, other data shows that it is premature for the conservative party to uncork the champagne.
Before the election, its lawmakers numbered 173 in the 299-member legislative body. It saw a decline of 21elected legislators. In addition, it lost in the greater-metropolitan area. For the first time in Korea’s history, a party losing in Seoul and the nearby satellite Gyeonggi Province became the majority party.
Its current majority-status is fragile as a lawmaker-elect Kim Hyung-tae from a Pohang district quit the party Wednesday for his alleged attempt a decade ago to rape the wife of his late younger brother. It also plans to kick out the lawmaker-elect Moon Dae-sung, an IOC member and the taekwondo gold medalist in the Athens Olympics in 2004 for his purported plagiarism. It will technically lose its majority-party status following their expulsion. By-elections will become inevitable as many lawmakers-elect face investigations for violations of the Election Law.
Despite its majority-party status, the Saenuri Party mustered 125,000 fewer votes than the united opposition in the total votes cast in the elections. The opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) has seen an increase of 47 seats this time.
It is an ominous signal for Park Geun-hye, an undisputable presidential candidate for the ruling party. The election showed that conservatives and liberals ended their match in a draw. An equal percentage of voters, 48 percent, stood behind either the conservative or liberal parties.
In a nutshell, last week’s election is a defeat for the liberal opposition camp, not a victory for the conservative party. Just two months ago, straw polls pointed to a landslide victory for the allied opposition.
The majority opposition DUP made a series of blunders in its campaign strategy, including unrealistic promises, opposition to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island. Its radicalism scared away many fence sitters.
It nominated a few controversial figures, including a bad-mouthed anti-Lee Myung-bak podcaster. These actions alienated undecided voters at the last minute.
The DUP has yet to see the emergence of a credible leader comparable to Park.
Winning the parliamentary election has ironically become a burden to Park, who says this is her final bid for the presidency.
She has many checklists ahead of the presidential election on Dec.19.
First, complacency prevails in her party. Her sycophants will blind her. The defeated opposition is in a crisis mode. They will have no choice but to invite Ahn Cheol-soo if they are serious about winning the presidential election. A series of straw polls showed that he is the only viable challenger to Park; at least for now.
Second, Park should seek ways of embracing the disgruntled voters in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province. Without winning their hearts, she has little chance of winning.
Third, she has a strong chance of winning only if she musters support of up to 51 percent of the voters. An extrapolation of the April 11 elections shows that she could obtain 48 percent, 3 percentage points below the safe victory zone.
It will be a tight race this year because conservatives and liberals are in a tight tug of war.
Fourth, she faces multifaceted scrutiny as a presidential candidate. Without patching up the simmering family feud, she will encounter blocks to her cruise to the presidency. Crucial is her complete, irreversible and verifiable cutting of ties to the controversial Chungsoo Scholarship Foundation, named after her late father President Park Chung-hee and her assassinated mother Yook Young-soo.
Fifth, once again, parochial regionalism marred the parliamentary elections. Park's conservative party swept the southeastern Yongnam region, Gangwon Province and central Chungcheong Province. Whether Park likes it or not, the unintended rekindling of regionalism, will surely worry voters in the rest of the country. She should prove that she is a candidate for all regions, not for her and her father's strongholds. She needs an outreach program for the southwestern Jeolla and Jeju area.
Sixth, she needs policies empathizing with the liberalism-oriented 2040 generation.
Seventh, Korean voters tend to consider checks-and-balances at the polling booths. As the Saenuri Party won numerically in the parliamentary contest, many swing voters might have second thoughts over voting for the governing party again in the presidential race. This is also a handicap for Park.
Eighth, North Korea is also a variable. The Pyongyang regime has frequently sought to influence the outcome of presidential races, including the mid-air detonation of a Korean Air passenger plane just days before the election in 1987. The possibility is high this year in view of unprecedented inter-Korean tension.
Ninth, Park has a trustworthy image. She also has the experience of being a first lady for five years for her father following her mother’s assassination. Her dogmatic and sometimes authoritarian flavor has often puzzled onlookers. This image makes voters wonder whether she is on the same wavelength as her father in governance style.
Lastly, she must devise ways of distancing herself from President Lee Myung-bak without alienating conservatives. Her father’s brutal and authoritarian 18-year rule will surely cast a large shadow on her.
Ahn has a strong potential to outshine her although he has no experience in politics and no loyal political base. He commands an extensive following from all regions, generations and ideological spectrum, and is appealing to both conservatives and liberals. An Ahn presidential bid would be the biggest challenge for Park.
The economy will be a central theme in this year’s race. Unless the economy shows signs of an upturn, more jobs and eased polarization, Park will have a problem.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.