Ever since the impeachment bill was introduced last December, the next presidential election has been on everybody’s mind. Who will pick up the pieces from the Choi Soon-sil debacle and more importantly, how will they facilitate a transition into a new era of South Korean politics to ensure that a disaster of this scale never occurs again? From the vociferous Lee Jae-myung to the mild mannered Governor Ahn Hee-jung, the candidates of the 2017 elections come in all shapes and sizes. Yet they all offer a glimpse into the current of change bubbling beneath the surface of South Korean politics.
With former President Park Geun-hye officially impeached, the 2017 presidential race is perhaps the most anticipated and frenzied election ever to grace South Korean history. So far, five politicians from the Democratic Party of Korea, the People’s Party, and the Bareun Party have the likeliest claim to the presidency, and range from traditionally revered figures to idealistic newcomers.
Moon Jae In, the uncontested frontrunner, boasts years of political experience and expertise unrivalled by most others. Governor Ahn Heejung prides himself on being a career politician and has recently seen a drastic growth in approval ratings due to his moderately liberal stance. Lee Jae myung is gathering much support for his direct and uncompromising language, a description that extends to his vision. Former People’s Party Representative Ahn Cheol-soo is returning with Moon in his second attempt at ascending to the president’s office. From the conservative side, Yoo Seung-min, the self-styled economics expert, has joined the race with his own appealing brand of economic pragmatism. What do these candidates have in mind for the future of the country?
A Glimpse into the Future
Job creation is always a mainstay of elections, and this year is no exception. Moon, Former Representative Ahn, and Yoo’s economic policies all revolve around job creation on a massive scale. The latter candidates focus on encouraging innovation and startups as a means toward creating more jobs in the private sector. In contrast, Moon promises to create 810,000 new jobs in the public sector alone, allotting much less importance to the private sector than Ahn or Yoo. Deviating from the usual pattern of distancing oneself from previous governments is Governor Ahn, who controversially proposes to succeed several economic policies from the Park administration, specifically their emphasis on environmental issues and corporate innovation.
Lee is much more interested in welfare policies than job creation, publicly announcing that he plans on redistributing the chaebols’ wealth to provide basic income of over one million won per year to every citizen. Going as far as to brand chaebols as criminals during the Democratic Party debate, Lee’s declarations mark a clear departure from the promises of other candidates such as Moon and Governor Ahn, who shy away from implementing such suffocating limitations on chaebols. The feasibility of Lee’s propositions, as well as that of Moon and other candidates, has been contested by some.
“Candidates’ policies about job creation should be accompanied by comments on how they plan on adjusting taxation rates to raise the finances required for such endeavors. So far, Moon has not broached the topic of taxation, which is worrisome,” Professor Cho Jinman (Duksung Women’s University, Political Science and International Relations) stated. He also touched upon the problem of sustainability that often follows drastic economic undertakings, which characterizes Lee’s policies. “Lee’s redistribution plan is all well and good, except for the fact that citizens will no longer receive basic income once his term ends,” Professor Cho mentioned. “Candidates must ensure that their policies will be sustainable long after their term has come and gone,” he stressed.
Another point of interest is how the candidates plan on dealing with government corruption in the aftermath of the Choi Soon-sil Scandal. Lee is clearly the most outspoken when it comes to ending corruption, strongly calling for the complete dismantlement of the Saenuri Party, now called the Liberty Korea Party. Moon, while not quite as aggressive as Lee, also advocates an overhaul of the existing political structure. According to Moon, changing the leading party and government structure are keys to eliminating corruption.
On the other hand, Governor Ahn calls for a Grand Coalition among all political parties, even including the Liberty Korea party, given that they can arrive at a reasonable compromise. Politicians should prioritize passing new laws that improve the lives of citizens rather than fighting among themselves, at least until the next legislative elections, Governor Ahn told numerous media outlets. Likewise, Yoo noticeably opposes Moon and Lee’s exclusiveness, suggesting that politicians should look ahead instead of dwelling on past missteps. “Such wildly differing approaches to the current predicament is symptomatic of current Korean politics, which is rife with conflict and polarization,” Professor Cho suggested.
Drawing Clear Lines in the Dust
A huge difference between previous elections and the 2017 election lies in the fact that every candidate this time around has a clear voice and philosophy. Lee steadfastly adheres to his Bernie Sandersesque vision of an egalitarian society, and Governor Ahn is adamant in his belief that all political parties should come together in a Grand Coalition despite being subjected to heavy criticism. Even Moon, a holdover from the previous election, has cemented his identity as the candidate most intent on job creation with the slogan “People Come First.” This stands in stark contrast to the way former president Park abandoned her conservative identity and introduced redistribution policies and liberal welfare plans during the 2012 presidential election.
This year’s election is also characterized by a visible aversion toward populist policies by both the people and the candidates. Most noticeably, Governor Ahn refuses to provide any detailed policy plans lest they deteriorate into broken promises. Similarly, Yoo’s pragmatic economic plan to find the middle ground between taxation and welfare throws into sharp relief the populist element in former president Park’s promise to increase welfare without increasing taxation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the exponential increase of social media programs such as Ssulzun and the People’s Interview, to name a few, designed to evaluate each candidate’s temperament and policies.
“The media’s greater role in evaluating candidates is a great development,” Professor Cho declared. He also complimented the media for showcasing the other, more human aspects of the candidates such as their charisma. “Some people criticize the media for pandering to populist tendencies, but I personally think the candidates’ appearance on reality shows and television programs is a great opportunity for voters to become acquainted with them,” Professor Cho said. “It makes me wonder what world we would be living in if voters and the media were as keen to know more about their candidates five years ago as they are now,” he lamented.
2017 is shaping to be another tumultuous year, what with the shenanigans surrounding the impeachment trial and China’s retaliation for the placement of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles tainting the first three months. Nevertheless, the changes the five presidential candidates are willing to bring to the table, including a greater emphasis on personal philosophy and a more incisive, informative media, bodes well for the political scene. With Korea’s ignominious past now behind us, it is not too late for a ray of optimism to light up the future.