So this upstart politician — the son of a doctor, the renegade, and a center-liberal candidate who claims to be neither right nor left — appeared to some voters in the recent presidential election to be the only hope (or the lesser evil) to prevent the worst case scenario from taking place. Though he wanted to build a sustainable and well-functioning welfare system, he made no apology for being economically liberal and pro-business.
You may think of Emmanuel Macron and his “En Marche!” movement in France. But what I meant to describe was Ahn Cheol-soo and his People’s Party in South Korea. Unlike Macron who has defeated Marine Le Pen, his sole opponent in the runoff and the archenemy to a great deal of the French electorates, Ahn has lost to Moon Jae-in — the liberal candidate from the Democratic Party. Much to his supporters’ consternation, there was no last-minute tide turn sympathetic to the centrist.
It is in part understandable that many South Koreans are basking in the victory of Moon, precisely because his triumph seems to be a denouement of a six-month-long peaceful protest against Park Geun-hye, the recently ousted former president who had led the conservative party for the past decade. Ahn’s failure, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to deserve much attention; he was defeated by a large margin. What was worse, he dropped in the end from second to third place.
Yet our lives in general are often defined by our losses, what might have been rather than what has come to be. As our frustration always helps us articulate and better understand our thwarted desires, it is worth reflecting upon an alternative that the South Korean people forwent. Which roads were untaken? What possibilities were rejected and which opportunities were missed? Ahn’s rise and fall merit a series of postmortems.
Very early in the race, Ahn boldly declared that the election would be between Moon and himself, dismissing the underperforming rightist contenders. This snap presidential election was a consequence of Park’s ouster from office in the aftermath of her corruption scandal. When Park was impeached in December 2016, the percentage of those supporting her and her Saenuri Party (now called Liberty Korea) plummeted; the party would soon become torn asunder. It was an unusually favorable condition for leftists, liberals, and centrists.
Though Moon had been enjoying his lead on the high tide of anti-Park sentiment sweeping the country over the past several months, some expected that Ahn would be the ultimate victor because his centrist position could appeal to voters from a wide range of the political spectrum. By early April, Park was behind bars, the momentum from the political turmoil for Moon and his party began to slacken, and some supporters of another presidential contender within the Democratic Party — namely Ahn Hee-jung — seemed to be embracing Ahn Cheol-soo, at least temporarily. That is why Ahn Cheol-soo’s support in polls surged, turning the campaign into a two-way race with Moon. Ahn was trailing only by a small margin.
Although there was a real risk in speaking of change as pursuing a third way, Ahn was believed to have secured a broad base by projecting new political commitments and policy positions. Heartened by rising support, Ahn seized this particular juncture to propose his centrist position by rejecting the old partisan tropes that have long divided the country. He endeavored to shift the center of gravity in political discourse by moving away from ideologically overcharged battles toward some concrete issues such as education, advanced tech businesses, and setting up government support for small and medium-sized enterprise development — all domains for radical reform necessitated by the much-discussed Fourth Industrial Revolution.
(The Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to a new economic era characterized a range of rapidly growing new technologies that are fusing with one another to produce unexpectedly novel innovations, such as ubiquitous supercomputing, artificial intelligence and genetic editing.)
Moon, however, took a different strategy. Unlike Ahn who believed that this election should be prospective rather than retrospective — President Park and her party had already been condemned by means of impeachment, and there was no need to dwell on the past — Moon argued that South Koreans should continue and complete the fight against the corrupt conservatives (the Park faction and beyond), eliminating “deep-rooted evils” embedded in the entire society.
Playing within the old political terms, Moon self-defined himself as the only one representing the popular voice, expressed through massive candlelight rallies in major cities. Cleverly, the Moon campaign portrayed Ahn as belonging to an alleged new conservative coalition in the making. This move toward a massive anti-Ahn propaganda was perhaps understandable since Moon needed to protect his liberal and progressive base while ideally attracting some of the centrist voters. Much as his attack on Ahn — which sailed near the wind, maliciously disseminating a number of rumors about Ahn and his family — was proactive and effective, its overall contribution to this election debates in particular and democratic politics in general was to some degree regressive and even self-destructive.
Worth noting are the ways in which Moon’s politics of “cleaning up deep-rooted evils” — a byword when used by hardcore liberals for doing away with pro-Japanese collaborators, the chaebols, remnants of authoritarianism and corruption — ironically gave rise to the incredibly quick recovery of far rightists and extreme conservatives around Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate from the Liberty Korea Party. Moon, in painting himself as a great repudiator of the governing conservative regime, in fact provided a favorable condition in which Hong could put up a far better fight than anyone had ever expected a month ago.
Certainly, Hong’s success was due in part to the skillful demagoguery of his own. (Hong took to the familiar conservative strategy of painting the liberals “pro-North Korea sympathizers.”) Yet we need to remember that Moon was the only major candidate who didn’t ask Hong to withdraw from the race when the story was revealed that Hong once was a date-rape co-conspirator. Some pundits rooting for Moon openly encouraged Hong’s rise — hoping the conservative votes would be divided between Hong and Ahn — until they opted for last-minute fear-mongering tactics to win broader liberal and leftist votes.
(For example, the Democratic Party floor leader and pro-Moon public figures such as Cho Kuk, an academic who has become Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs, called on liberals to unite behind Moon so as to stop Hong’s eleventh-hour rise.)
What the Moon campaign did — wittingly or otherwise — was to create the threat by feeding the revival of the conservative and far rightist faction and claim to offer protection for it.
Ahn had long condemned Moon’s politics as a retreat back to a discredited past, similar to Hong’s even more disastrous reactionary politics. He understood that Moon’s righteous campaign would prevent those very evils from dying out since the politics so defined lives off fear and hatred of them. What South Korean voters witnessed in the latter half of the presidential campaign was the comeback of the old polarized terms of politics controlled by overly enthusiastic, single-minded, and sanctimonious fans of each side. Albeit different both in kind and degree, Moon and Hong could not but further fan the flames of fear against alleged evil forces, boosting the overt sense of their own self-righteousness.
For those who did not believe that partisan domination and aggressive leadership are the only viable means of overcoming chronic gridlock, Ahn’s radical centrist venture seemed to be essential to opening up more space for desirable structural changes. Often times, South Korean politicians had gotten caught up in ideologically agitating yet empty rhetoric, which made them difficult to work in practical terms arriving at workable solutions.
After having numerous elections in which the two largest opposing parties kept imploring or threatening the electorates to give them near blind support in the face of imminent catastrophe posed by their respective rival, one would say that democracy at the moment was not found in the major parties but between those parties in South Korea. And therein lied Ahn and his People’s Party.
Ahn lost nonetheless. Though he rightly acknowledged that there were a considerable number of people who had been repulsed by the old political divide, it was regrettable that he was not able to mobilize those people properly. His supposedly pragmatic proposals failed to come down to earth, staying at the level of an abstract agenda without creating a new solid base with which he could lead the race. (And Ahn himself appeared lackluster in all of the presidential debates save the last one.)
While Moon’s politics of “cleaning up deep-rooted evils” bred an elevated sense of retributive justice and inspired intense love for him, Ahn’s “new politics” or “politics of future” did not win the hearts of the people, providing little satisfactions and enthusiasm necessary for building a movement.
Despite Ahn’s passion, his new politics was not in the offing. More people chose to give chance to Moon even if that would mean a recrudescence of highly polarized politics dominated by those antipodal parties with largest parliamentary seats. Some Moon supporters have already jumped to the premature conclusion that South Korea’s all-too-powerful “imperial presidency” is no longer a problem. Yet, once this honeymoon period is over, and the major political debate looms as a usual fierce fight between the two forces, people may feel fed up with what keeps happening and think about the alternative they missed out on.