Tuesday, March 11, 2014

South Korea's Super PAC

In the US, politics are a matter of PACs, the Political Action Commitees that make or destroy candidates. But in Korea, the PAC that matters these days is the PARK Won-soon / AHN Cheol-soo / CHUNG Mong-joon trio.

Never mind PARK Geun-hye: Korean presidents tend to turn into lame ducks as soon as they're elected*, because of the one term limit designed to prevent the return of dictatorship.

Before getting back to that Korean PAC, let me finish my point on this safeguard of democracy that (as I last mentioned here in a stateofthedisunionish focus ahead of the 2012 presidential race, when the constitution turned 25 - see "25 years later") contributes to South Korea's very unique imbalance of power.
Again, in this country, the executive branch is almost powerless, the legislative branch utterly divided, the judiciary branch and the media not really independent, and democracy has no control whatsoever over the two forces that actually make and unmake kings: chaebol and netizens.

Some Saenuri lawmakers have been lobbying in favor of a constitutional change allowing a second mandate, but potential successors from all sides are probably not very happy with the timing, particularly since the first beneficiary would ironically be the daughter of PARK Chung-hee, the man who got rid of the two term limit to roll out his own Yushin Constitution.

Personally, I think that South Korea should return to a 2-term system, but also that, ideally and to prevent any misunderstanding, this major constitutional reform should be voted for the following administration, and not benefit any acting president. Furthermore, the impacts on the rest of the political system should be carefully taken into account.
For instance, in France, Jacques Chirac reduced the presidential term from 7 to 5 years, and I supported the move. But he didn't change the term of office for the members of the parliament (for example to 4 years), which I considered a must in order to avoid a major disruption in the dynamics of what passes for my country's democracy: our MPs are also elected for 5 years, and our President has the power to dissolve the parliament... As expected, this new political calendar is crippling France's Fifth Republic. But hopefully, the case for asynchronous elections may soon be raised, now that my fellow citizens have realized that they have to do with President Hollande for 5 years without any chance to make him change
No such problem in Korea, where Presidents are elected for 5 years, and MPs for 4 years. 
Back to South Korea's Super PAC now. In this local election year, the big prize remains Seoul City Hall, the ideal springboard to Cheong Wa Dae, with PARK Won-soon still leading in the most recent polls:

"Poll data shows incumbents leading ahead of local elections" (The Hankyoreh 20140310)
According to The Hankyoreh (progressive), the incumbent would win with a comfortable margin against any of the 3 declared Saenuri candidates: LEE Hye-hoon (56.1 v. 24.7%), KIM Hwang-sik (51.1 v. 31.8%), and CHUNG Mong-joon (47.5 v. 39.2%).

The closest to PGH among the 3, LEE champions the fight against chaebol domination, and caused a splash when she criticized the Lotte World Tower in Jamsil. But for the moment, this positioning as a counterweight within the conservative party doesn't make her very audible against the charismatic liberal incumbent. Serving as Prime Minister under the very divisive LEE Myung-bak doesn't help KIM's cause, even if a former Supreme Court justice from Jeollanam-do sounds like the perfect profile to reach across the aisle.

If CHUNG Mong-joon has got the most to lose in joining the race, he would all but secure a presidential win in 2017 by defeating PARK on June 4th. His main rival would then be AHN Cheol-soo, who would have only 3 years to completely reform Korean politics.

Right now, Saenuri is much more the well oiled machine of a party than a Democratic Party completely split between different currents, and unable to build a common platform beyond opposition and demonstrations. UPP scandals were the perfect opportunity to clarify ideological lines, but the organization keeps piling up electoral losses and postponing long overdue reforms.

If the rapprochement between the DP and AHN Cheol-soo's new party was inevitable (be it only as a non-aggression pact ahead of the upcoming elections), the discussions promise to be as complex as the ones that failed during the autumn 2012 and paved the way for PARK Geun-hye's victory over MOON Jae-in. 

With or without KIM Han-gil's help, AHN has yet to prove he can reform the system from the inside. So far, he managed to recruit more than a few key lawmakers for his "New Politics" party, but disappointed by drafting a veteran politico who worked for CHUN Doo-hwan, PARK Geun-hye and MOON Jae-in (YOON Yeo-jun), and by forgetting to nominate at least one woman in his executive team. 

In any case, this thankless task won't be as glamorous as a tenure as Seoul mayor and come 2017, AHN could find himself in a 2012-like situation, should she man he helped get the job in 2011 get reelected next June.

June 4th really looks like a make-or-break moment for both PARK and CHUNG, to the point the latter may decide to pull out of the race. After all, he already did that during his presidential bid, and in favor of ROH Moo-hyun against LEE Hoi-chang (just a reminder how lines can move here). Besides, CHUNG can do without the prestige of City Hall (cf Hyundai Heavy Industries, ASAN Institute, FIFA, 7 terms as a lawmaker...).

But if "Paris is worth a mass", Seoul is worth a race, and whoever wins, I'm curious to see which vision for the future of Korea emerges.


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* a curse that does have its charms, see for instance "Sejong City and the beauty of lameduckhood"

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