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[News Focus] Parties rely more on star figures than policies

With the April general elections drawing near, one of the top tasks for political parties is to select the appropriate candidates and recruit influential public figures.

The main opposition Democratic United Party is to welcome Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon into its fold this week and the ruling Saenuri Party will round off its election candidate nomination by early next month.

Attention is also paid on whether professor Ahn Cheol-soo will join the left-wing camp before the upcoming elections.

Observers, however, point out that the parties’ focus on political stars may be attributed to their lack of policies.

“In the past, right-wing and left-wing parties were largely differentiated by the content and direction of their policies,” said Woo Jung-yeop, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“However, recent talks on welfare policies and savings banks measures have shown that the parties no longer have such differences.”

Up until the 1990s, parties were divided over their North Korean policies as the conservative wing took a tough stance against the communist state and the liberal camp focused on unification, he said.

In the early 2000s, the economy was the touchstone of policy differentiation. The right-wing pushed for general economic growth, whereas the left-wing spoke for more equal wealth distribution.

“Major social issues may no longer be seen in black and white,” Woo said.

“Amid such changes, parties have not yet established their distinctive identity and image.”

The ruling party has recently pledged to expand its welfare policies and reinforce conglomerate regulations, which were traditionally the left-wing’s flagship causes.

This is why rival parties will seek out public-friendly images, rather than political, ideological content, Woo said.

“Parties need a star figure in order to appeal to the public,” he added.

“Public figures such as Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in are even regarded as potential presidential candidates, but their popularity is not based on policies, but rather on their friendly and easygoing attitudes.”

Shin Yul, political science professor at Myongji University, however, claimed that the focus on political celebrities has long been a custom in Korean politics.

“The greatest weakness of political parties here is that they fail to pursue a consistent policy,” Shin said.

“The focus has always been placed on specific figures and their images.”

Recently, such tendencies have been more conspicuous because people have become bored with the established politics and thus reluctant to take a political career, he added.

“The more people abstain from politics, the more eager parties are to find star figures. It is all about supply and demand.”

By Bae Hyun-jung  (
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Korea Herald daum