To change nation, Park must first change herself
By sweeping the ruling Saenuri Party’s presidential primary Monday, Park Geun-hye set two records. She became the first female presidential candidate in Korea, and for the first time ever turned the race into a battle between the sexes. If Park wins the election in December, she will set one more precedent: the first president to come from the same family, following her father, Park Chung-hee.
But what drew greater attention from political watchers, her friends and foes alike, was another record set in the primary: Park won with a record-high support rating amid record-low voter turnout. And this indicates much about the four-month-long campaigns to follow, and possibly thereafter.
Two of Park’s greatest merits as a politician are her strong conviction and principle-centered leadership. On the other side of the coin, these advantages could become the disadvantage of self-righteousness and inflexibility. A recent case in point was the primary itself, which failed to even attract the interest of party members, because it became all but an installation ceremony due to Park’s adherence to old voting rules.
Her four competitors, or supporting actors as cynics call them, couldn’t even freely take issue with Park’s qualifications to become a challenger for the nation’s top job, intimidated by her fanatic, even violent supporters.
What has dubbed the 60-year-old, unmarried politician as the “Election Queen” was also her supposed dedication to the nation, nostalgia for the rapid-growth of the 1960s and ’70s, mainly among the older generation, and a strong regional support base in the populous southeastern provinces. In short, Park’s character and background, not her policies which are not very clear even to her most ardent followers, are the source of her popularity, at least so far.
Knowing too well that her personal appeal will not work in the main race, her campaigners will bombard voters with policies in the form of election pledges.
During the primary days or even before that, Park began moving boldly to the left on the issue of “economic democracy” and for a social safety network for public welfare, even causing concern among party members and supporters that the conservative party could lose its ideological identity. At stake is how drastically she will be able to change the social and economic framework to define 21st-century Korea. For instance, voters, especially younger ones, will question whether Park’s selected, “custom-made” welfare policy and relatively soft reform of family-controlled conglomerates are enough to rectify economic polarization.
This requires a basic change in her social and economic philosophy.
No less difficult for her would be how to separate herself from the negative legacy of her father-cum-mentor through admitting the late leader’s problems, not denying them. Voters need not be historians to know that an important candidate’s perception of history suggests how he or she will make moves in the future. Unless Park coolly admits to the wrongs done by her father ― not as a daughter but as a candidate ― voters will discover an undemocratic gene common to members of the Park family, which produces an attitude that advocates the ends justifying the means.
In her acceptance speech, Park emphasized harmony and unity. Even this could sound undemocratic in the 21st-century Korea. Unlike in the 1960s, what Koreans want today is not an authoritarian nation-salvaging hero but a more reasonable, democratic compromiser. Park’s success lies in whether she can produce such a turnaround in her consciousness. <The Korea Times>
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