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Thursday, April 8, 2021

After OH Se-hoon's Hangang Renaissance, Who In 2022?

If both Seoul and Busan delivered landslide victories to PPP candidates, yesterday's by-elections were less a conservative triumph than a crushing defeat for the ruling party, and a double-edged sword win for moderates between two much more consequential votes.

Here's the score:

  • Busan: PARK Hyun-joon (PPP) 63% - KIM Young-choon (DP) 34%
  • Seoul: OH Se-hoon (PPP) 57.5% - PARK Young-sun (DP) 39%
  • Both winners claimed 100% of the districts*.

OH Se-hoon campaigning in Sinchon on April 6 (photo S.M.)

PARK and OH offered rather humble acceptance speeches out of respect for the context and the expectations of voters, but also in sharp contrast with the ruling party who, last year, interpreted their landslide win at the 2020 legislative elections as, instead of a referendum on the handling of the pandemic, an absolute mandate for the very reforms that, under normal circumstances, should have led to their defeat:

  • They not only kept undermining the separation of powers in the name of justice reform, but prolonged the CHO Kuk scandals with the CHOO Mi-ae and YOO Mee-yang scandals... They even managed to create, all by themselves, their strongest presidential challenger to date: YOON Seok-yeol.
  • They not only pushed even further suicidal real estate reforms that kept crushing the middle class and leading have-nots to have even less, but also got entangled in the LH scandals.

No wonder even the inept, irrelevant PPP could defeat this embarrassing crew. Yet conservatives shouldn't make the same mistake as the DP, and believe or claim that conservatism won. It's a democratic, centrist alliance that made all the difference. And what Korea wants, what Korea needs now is neither an ideological, stubborn conservative rule, nor a ideological, stubborn left, but a pragmatic, moderate, centrist, uniting leadership**. 

Actually, conservatives lost the PPP primaries when center-right OH Se-hoon defeated NA Kyung-won. And the pact OH cemented with AHN Cheol-soo (who won the centrist primaries against  KEUM Tae-sup) worked perfectly: they wrapped up their poll-based primaries right on time, and campaigned together in a rare display of political fair play.

Centrist leader AHN Cheol-soo and weather vane kingmaker KIM Chong-in on stage in Sinchon, campaigning for OH Se-hoon on the eve of the 4.7 elections (photos S.M.)

When announced the winner yesterday on TV, OH Se-hoon was obviously very moved, and remained seated for a few seconds. Probably thinking about the miscalculation that cost him his job ten years ago, when he put it in the balance for an unnecessary referendum on school lunches (ironically, the left won by campaigning against a measure of social justice usually pushed by socialist parties - only the rich pay for it)***. Maybe remembering his exile in Kingali and Lima, his failed political return five years ago (see "OH Se-hoon returns... but did he ever leave?").  Certainly reflecting about how, just weeks ago, he was still an underdog...

Now OH looks ideally positioned for the 2027 presidential elections, except for the fact that he is once more facing a hostile majority at the Seoul metropolitan council. He only won the job for 15 months (the remainder of PARK Won-soon's mandate), and will have to campaign again next year with little chance to bring significant change in between: even before the elections, LEE Nak-yon let everybody know that his party would obstruct his every move... LEE's dumb statement immediately backfired but anyway, after yesterday's debacle, the ruling party's former front-runner doesn't stand any chance for 2022's main prize: Cheong Wa Dae.

Who will win next year's presidential elections? 

If the PPP learns the lessons from Seoul, they will try to further evolve, and build a big tent reaching for the center and YOON Seok-youl, whom AHN Cheol-soo has already been rooting for. A PPP momentum means less room for a fully independent candidate. I'm not sure the former top prosecutor will want to run, but this liberal certainly won't do it under a very conservative banner.

The ruling party will probably try to perform some cosmetic changes and bring new faces, but they have to abandon the anti-democracy path they've chosen recently, and preferably with a better candidate than a Trump-style populist like LEE Jae-myung. He could win, but then Korea would lose.

Whatever The Future brings, this being Korea, we shall be hearing some more about real estate during the campaign...

'WTF. Seoul election results by... subway lines and stations!!! Actually quite entertaining. Oh Se-hoon. Park Young-sun' (@theSeoulVillage - 20210407 -

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* Beyond Seoul's 25 'gu', OH even won every single 'dong' / neighborhood, except 3:

  • Seongsan 1-dong (Mapo-gu) by 168 votes
  • Hwagok 8-dong (Gangseo-gu) by 309 votes
  • Guro 3-dong (Guro-gu) by 863 votes. 

** I should add 'inclusive', because that's also what Korea needs. But not yet what Korea wants. OH Tae-yang, the first openly LGBT candidate for Seoul mayor, finished 9th out of 12 with 6,483 votes (0.13%). That's a first step, but Korean politics remain overwhelmingly homophobic.

*** In case you forgot, the referendum that caused OH Se-hoon his job, and the scandal that hit his rival KWAK No-hyun right afterwards, opening a path for a very lucky PARK Won-soon: "Seoul free school lunch referendum (continued)" (20110612), "In memoriam OH Se-hoon" (20110824), "Kwak's "gros couac" (20110830)

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