On the day after the April 15 election, a lawyer friend of mine living in California sent me an SNS message, quoting French philosopher Joseph de Maistre: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
Upon the news of the government party’s stunning victory in the latest National Assembly election here, he was telling me that Korean voters were never more reproachable than Americans who had elected Donald Trump in 2016.
For the past week, experts wrestled with the question of how people were so generous as to present so big a majority to the ruling force which had put them into deep woes on economy and security during the past three years. Moreover, the Moon Jae-in government is scheming to consolidate its power beyond legislature, aiming at easier control of the entire law enforcement system. Do we Koreans really deserve all these?
Well, we may take pride in that the election process was flawless. We believe that manipulation of votes is unimaginable in the 21st century Korea. Some YouTubers’ suspicions of ballot stuffing and false counting in the course of advance voting across the country are generally dismissed. Not a single case of violence was reported and the voter turnout hit the record high of 66.2 percent in this pandemic emergency.
Many media and academic analysts, looking into the big left-right disparity of roughly 190 to 110, pointed out that Korea’s political mainstream had now moved to the left. Blaming individual misbehaviors or poor campaign strategy for opposition setback is off the mark because the fundamental question was the shift of public loyalty, they argued. Yet, few can tell how soon the political pendulum will swing back.
If something should be added to the post mortem, one important factor was the opposition party’s basic character of wholesale negativism. A large part of the electorate disapproved of the government’s leftist economic package, namely the dogmatic income-led-growth, phased closure of nuclear power plants, raise of minimum wages and reduction of standard work hours. The opposition party lambasted it but failed to offer viable alternatives that could give hope to suffering voters.
The conservatives remained leaderless for too long. It began rebuilding party hierarchy early last year with the recruitment of Hwang Kyo-ahn, former prime minister under President Park Geun-hye. Hwang formed a “neutral” nomination committee only a few months from the election date but he interfered with the final list to include a few names he favored.
Kim Jong-in, 80, originally a liberal economist with reputation as a caretaker for parties in distress, was installed as campaign director only a few weeks before the official campaign period began. The drafting of the political antique that had crossed partisan fences in recent years proved that the main opposition force now had a complete depletion of dependable insiders. He displayed no magic to record one of the worst opposition losses in decades.
Only one gullible TV pundit, Yu Shi-min, openly predicted the possibility of a huge win for the ruling party while other DPK leaders cautioned against any rash bragging about a rich harvest on the eve of the election, fearing a premature backlash. As the final tally was made on the morning of April 16, TV viewers were puzzled to see party staff wearing dark faces instead of bursts of laughter as if they were ordered restraint by party chair Lee Hae-chan.
Winners from Seoul and Gyeonggi Province who gathered at the party headquarters suppressed their delight partly out of modesty and partly from the awareness of their heavy tasks ahead -- to protect the nation against Corona-19 and save the people from the depth of economic slump. Clear improvements should be shown within a year or so before the next presidential contest begins.
The liberal Democratic Party’s winning streak began in the 2016 Assembly election which gave them the single-seat margin of 123:122 against then conservative ruling Saenuri (New World) Party. In the presidential election after Park’s impeachment, Moon beat rightist candidate Hong Joon-pyo and centrist Ahn Cheol-su by 41:24:21. The local elections the following year presented the new ruling party with 14 out of 17 metropolitan and gubernatorial seats and a near sweep of local councils across the country. And, finally, the election landslide last week.
No political party in the republic’s history has ever recorded more than four consecutive victories in general elections. Extraordinary success in government work will be needed to extend power, no matter how much public support it may enjoy with the increase of leftist-sympathizers in the older population and the middle-income bracket.
The government and its party should now listen to the calls from the suffering people in the pandemic era who, in whatever segment of the ideological spectrum, must be more interested in personal safety and material provisions than any grand government goals, such as prosecution reform, creation of a top-level oversight body, constitutional revision and appeasement with North Korea.
On the top of the practical agenda are two things. First is declaring tolerance on former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye and a hundred other members of the previous administration and judiciary who have been given heavy punishment on charges of “accumulated wrongdoings.” Technical procedures for clemency can be worked out when the president makes a decision.
Second is bold retraction of misguided economic policies. The phase-out of nuclear power plants has caused the destruction of a significant portion of the nation’s machine and high-tech industry along with thousands of parts suppliers. Urgent are support measures for the aviation, shipping, petrochemical, automobile and construction industries that buttress the national economy.
The government is about to take worldwide credit for the success in containing the novel coronavirus in three months of quarantine and treatment efforts. If its claim to competence can be justified, the emergency relief fund should be promptly released to citizens through reasonable classification of beneficiaries.
Prior to the election, members of the leftist ruling group openly pronounced their socialist ideals along with the ambition of perpetuating in power, which may look more attainable with the beautiful outcome of the April 15 elections. President Moon may forget about the lame duck status for some time, but an end will come anyway.
He recently said he wants to be a forgotten man in his country home after retirement. It is not an easy wish but he knows what to do to realize it and does not need much advice.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.