Previously, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo had agreed to unify their candidacy to create a single progressive candidate. Since then, the two candidates held and broke off several rounds of negotiations regarding the methodology of the unification. Finally, on November 23, 2012, Ahn abruptly withdrew his candidacy, ceding the progressive candidacy to Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in.
As far as political aesthetics go, Ahn’s move was an inspired one. Ahn’s greatest asset as a politician was his image as the new breed of politician, heroically appearing to breathe a fresh air into the old politics. Ahn had no choice but to unite his candidacy — otherwise, Moon and Ahn would split the progressive votes, guaranteeing Park Geun-hye’s victory. But as Ahn grappled with Moon to negotiate the unification of the slate, the value of his prime asset — i.e. the image — began to erode. Fighting for every inch of advantage in the proposed mini-primary was the opposite of the “new politics”. So was Ahn’s attempt to court the DUP Assembly Members and supporters away from Moon. Ahn’s numbers began to sink, and he was projecting to lose against Moon in the head-to-head battle. Even if Ahn managed to prevail over Moon, it would be a Pyrrhic victory — by the time he would face Park Geun-hye, Ahn would have squandered away his prime political asset.
Faced with two unsavory choices, Ahn chose to sublimate. Ahn would not squander away his chief political asset to achieve an intermediate victory that may well turn out to doom his presidential run in the end, nor would he quietly lose to Moon and have a number attached to the margin of his loss. Instead, he would restore the damage that his asset has taken in the last two months — he would withdraw, cleanly and without making a fuss, and declare his support for Moon Jae-in.
Although Ahn withdrew, his influence remains quite relevant. We have already witnessed his ability to serve as a king-maker — Ahn did make Park Won-soon, a candidate with around 5% support, into a 53.4%-garnering juggernaut. Ahn did express his support for Moon Jae-in, but how Ahn will express that support going forward may just decide the election.
(More after the jump.)
Moon Jae-in survived the first test — becoming the unified candidate for the progressives. But the way Ahn Cheol-soo left the field is less than ideal, and Moon must now pick up the pieces.
The best scenario for Moon would have been to actually go through some type of voting or other measurement against Ahn — the two candidates were discussing some type of survey to decided the winner — followed by Ahn’s enthusiastic support of the camp. This type of organic merging between the two candidates would have given Moon the maximum legitimacy as the unified candidate, and minimized the defection of Ahn’s supporters.
Instead, Moon is now looking like the vanguard of the old politics who railroaded the would-be reformer out of his way. According to a recent survey, majority of Ahn’s supporters (52.6%) thought Ahn withdrew because he could not overcome the DUP’s pressure. While majority of Ahn’s supporters (56.8%) moved on to support Moon, a significant minority (18.9%) now supports Park Geun-hye. Still another significant number of Ahn’s supporters fell into the “undecided” group. The “undecided” group, now lacking its star, may choose not to vote. Unless Moon manages to attract the disaffected Ahn’s voters, he will lose to Park Geun-hye — who is now leading majority of the head-to-head polls against Moon Jae-in by 2 to 3 percentage points.
As of now, Ahn’s support of Moon is lukewarm as well. Although it has been several days since Ahn withdrew, he did not yet make any public appearance. Also, rather than officially joining Moon’s camp, Ahn is apparently planning to independently campaign for Moon – further diminishing the possible synergy that Ahn could create for Moon. Ahn has indicated that he will campaign for Moon in a week or so, to maximize Ahn’s contribution to Moon’s victory. The fear, however, is that the help might come too late.
Meanwhile, the very unpopular presidency of Roh Moo-hyun continues to act as the millstone around Moon’s neck. Conservative newspapers are already eager to paint Moon as the second coming Roh, which is not exactly unfair given Moon’s close relationship to Roh Moo-hyun as a person as well as the president. Although Moon has a ready counterattack against Park Geun-hye by tying her to her father’s legacy, it simply does not pack the same punch, as sufficient number of Koreans are quite satisfied with how they fared under Park Chung-hee.
So, after a long detour, Korea’s presidential election may have come back to where it was around three months ago: that is, Park Geun-hye’s to lose. And Park’s campaign is surely acting like it. For months, Park Geun-hye was on a steady march to the left — she promised an expanded welfare state and abruptly changed her stance on her father’s coup d’etat from “best possible choice” to “damages to constitutional values.”
Yet, around a month ago, Park’s campaign switched focus and began concentrating on galvanizing its base. It quietly dropped the slogan for “economic democratization,” and dumped the prominent economic advisor Kim Jong-in who vocally called for chaebol reform. Park’s campaign also began to raise questions about Roh Moo-hyun’s handling of North Korea relations, which plays well for Korea’s hawkish conservatives. Faced with another crisis in connection with her father’s legacy — this time, regarding the “scholarship foundation” that manages Park Chung-hee’s leftover slush funds — Park chose to stand tall, insisting that the foundation had nothing to do with her.
Park’s campaign does have one message that is aimed for the undecided voters — the “woman president” line. This message is working to some degree, especially among women voters in their 40s. To reinforce the message, Park has been focusing on “women-friendly” campaign promises, such as harsher prosecution for violence against women.
In sum, Park’s campaign strategy is: (1) hold the base, and (2) win just enough undecided voters through the “woman president” line. It is quite Karl Rove-esque — calculating, rather than inspiring. And it just might work.