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The Road Ahead

Ahn Cheol-soo

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

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.

Park Geun-hye

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.

  • http://askakorean.blogspot.com thekorean

    Don’t know why the formatting is messed up. I tried fixing it to no avail. If you want more readability, feel free to visit my blog, which has the same post: http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2012/11/koreas-presidential-election-part-iv.html

  • Yu Bum Suk

    What did he think was going to happen? Either he wanted to be kingmaker all along or he was too obtuse to realise that the DUP wasn’t going to jump over to him en masse with no mess.

  • brier

    Ahn had to quite. He joined the race after Moon was selected at as the left’s candidate. If Ahn’s grace wasn’t able to bully Moon out of the race and they split the vote for the left, Ahn would have been blamed. Ahn’s mistake was coming into the race too late. Keeping his independence was fine, but he should have declared he would run long before Moon won in the primaries. He can chalk it up to a beginner’s mistake. It will be real interesting to see how he organizes himself politically between now and 2017. He will most like likely run again.

  • R. Elgin

    What happened to the previous post on presidential TV ads?

    Did the election commission call you in the office and complain?

  • http://bcarr.com Brendon Carr

    Don’t know why the formatting is messed up. I tried fixing it to no avail.

    Let me clear it up: You used Microsoft Word to prepare the text, and cut-and-pasted it into the web form. Don’t do that. Microsoft Word is a word processor for creating documents to be printed on paper or perhaps spooled out to PDF, not a text editor for creating web documents. These two tools are different from each other. Word adds an enormous amount of garbage HTML markup to all text when it’s pasted into a web form. Again, Don’t. Do. That! It marks you as a clueless idiot, even more sharply than your progressive politics do.

    Learn HTML to control your formatting. You’re smart. Plus it’s easy. You can do this. Here’s a list of 10 free text editors for Windows.

    I cleaned up your shit markup for you.

  • Mryouknowwho

    It marks you as a clueless idiot, even more sharply than your progressive politics do.

    You’re smart.

    I cleaned up your shit markup for you.

  • http://askakorean.blogspot.com thekorean

    You used Microsoft Word to prepare the text, and cut-and-pasted it into the web form. Don’t do that.

    Actually, I wrote the text into Blogger…

  • DLBarch

    I’m still catching up on my Korean politics readings after a well-earned vacation over the Thanksgiving holidays here, and only just learned that Sim Sang-jeung has also pulled out of the presidential race.

    I’m sure the 23 people who planned to vote for her will mostly gravitate to Moon, but, still, I’m kinda sorry to see her go. She seemed to represent the sane minority within the PJP wing of the UPP.

    DLB