Could Yoon be a Thatcher?
The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo. In his first speech at the National Assembly in May, President Yoon Suk-yeol mentioned the “partnership” between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and opposition leader Clement Attlee in his war Cabinet. The conservative president’s underscoring of co-governance with the Democratic Party (DP) drew much attention. However, given his hawkish response to massive protests by labor unions, the president’s role model seems to have changed to Margaret Thatcher from Churchill. Thatcher quelled the British disease — overly generous welfare, high cost and low efficiency — through radical reforms. She reestablished Britain as a major power after its long descent in the postwar era. The pillar of her crusade was a head-to-head confrontation with labor unions.
In the 1970s, unions were indomitable in the UK to the extent that strikes by unionized miners led to an election defeat of the Conservative Party led by Edward Heath. But the unfettered strife forced the British — the middle class in particular — turn their backs on labor unions. The pinnacle of that standoff was the Winter of Discontent from November 1978 to February 1979, when all trains, buses and subways stopped. Patients were denied of their rights to get medical treatment at hospitals at the time. Seventy percent of the people pointed to the unions as a source of serious social problems. The hard-line stance of unions largely contributed to the landslide victory of the Tories led by Thatcher in the parliamentary elections in May 1979.
The Korean equivalent of the British disease may have been in President Yoon’s mind before he enforced an executive order to bring members of the belligerent Cargo Truckers Solidarity back to work. Yoon, former prosecutor general, must have thought that upholding law and principles is an unalienable identity of his administration. Between Thatcher and Yoon there are other similarities, too, such as cherishing free market and privatization, downsizing the public sector and streamlining hefty welfare services.
However, overlapping images does not mean same political conditions. Thatcher could earn the badge of honor as the longest-serving British prime minister since World War II after winning in three general elections. But the period of her 11-year reign was not so smooth. In the first term, her approval rating fell to the 20-percent range after jobless rates soared as a result of industrial restructuring. Without a decisive triumph in the Falklands War, the Conservative Party would have failed to extend its power. It was in the mid-1980s — Thatcher’s second term — that her reform drive started to bear fruits.
President Yoon has four and a half years left in his five-year single term. Sixteen months later, nationwide parliamentary elections will be held to determine the fate of his administration. Yoon singled out labor, pension and education reforms as major goals of his administration. But reform is long and arduous work because of vehement resistance from stakeholders and slow progress. In other words, the president cannot use tangible results of his reform drive to campaign for his People Power Party (PPP) in the parliamentary elections in April 2024. But if he drags his feet on the reform, it can make conservative voters turn their backs on him and the PPP. That’s a dilemma for the president.
Thatcher cured the British disease marvelously, but it also cast a long shadow. When she passed away in 2013, citizens of Liverpool, a labor-friendly city, shouted, “The Witch is dead!” That manifests hatred so deeply entrenched over the years. Nevertheless, Thatcher could push dramatic reforms thanks to solid support from the middle class.
What about Yoon? Six months into presidency, his approval rating is in the 30 percent range. Internal conflicts in the PPP, a series of appointment fiascoes, problems with his attitude and frequent slips of the tongue helped lower his approval ratings. Currently, Yoon’s opponents nearly double his supporters. A president trying to shun responsibility for the Itawon tragedy from the beginning, and his emotional reaction to the press, only help worsen such risks.
The president will likely be forced to appeal for support by championing the need for reform instead of bragging of the results of his reform effort. If his approval rating remains stagnant under such circumstances, what will happen? Fortunate is Yoon’s approval rating stuck in the 30 percent range despite repeated fumbles by Yoon, his aides and PPP over the past six months. But complacency is dangerous. The DP lost power in the Mar. 9 presidential election after being elated by the concrete 40 percent support for president Moon. The term “concrete” means less elasticity. Just as unions helped Thatcher to take power, the DP now helps the Yoon government by betting all on protecting its boss Lee Jae-myung who’s facing a number of allegations against him.
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