Extreme polarization with no buffer zone

2023. 12. 5. 20:23
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I hope that a group of politicians, who became famous as rising stars of pragmatism, will stay the course instead of being discouraged by low poll numbers.

Seo Seung-wook

The author is a political news director of the JoongAng Ilbo. Last week, I came across a standalone picture in a newspaper about former President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Vietnam. What caught my eye was the old leather briefcase in his hand. It was the same one I had seen Lee carrying on every presidential trip when I was a Blue House correspondent. I heard it was a gift from the Italian prime minister in the 1980s, when Lee was working as a businessman.

During his presidency, Lee was applauded for his diplomatic accomplishments, more than President Yoon Suk Yeol. Restoring the Korea-U.S. alliance, completing the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, hosting a Group of 20 summit and winning a nuclear plant bid from the United Arab Emirates were some key moments. Lee carried that faded old briefcase at the time. He put related materials into the briefcase so that he could review them on the Korea Air Force One.

On his way to the International Olympic Committee meeting in Durban in 2011 — where Korea won the bid to host the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics — Lee also carried a report on a vote estimate in that briefcase. According to his memoir, the government expected Korea to win 48 to 64 votes in the first round of voting. As Korea won 63 votes at the time, the situation was completely different from the recent failed bid to host the 2030 World Expo, for which President Yoon Suk Yeol apologized to the people.

Evaluations of the five years of Lee’s presidency vary drastically, depending on political affiliations, ideologies and perspectives. But I deliberately brought up the story from that period due to the extreme factional confrontation — the worst evil in Korean politics — which has intensified since his term ended. Lee came to power on a platform of moderation and pragmatism. His achievements as Seoul mayor — such as the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon and the revamp of the public transportation system — were his weapons, not his ideology.

Promoting centrist pragmatism, Lee defeated his rival Park Geun-hye, a hardcore conservative, in the conservative party’s primary. It was a miraculous victory for a man who had been ridiculed by pro-Park lawmakers as a “mere peddler” for his background as a businessperson. His victory in the presidential election was inevitable, as he was backed by a number of centrists and supporters of the conservative party against a liberal candidate whose supporters were shrinking. A landslide victory by 5.3 million votes looked natural.

But in hindsight, Lee was the last president to take power based on moderate voters’ support. Leaders since then were not. Former Presidents Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in and current President Yoon had solid support from one side, either right or left. The centrist voters, squeezed in the middle, had to make a difficult choice each time. No wonder the victory was determined by a narrow margin. As a result, political leaders had to please their own supporters first in order to not lose their votes. No leaders would dare to raise the banner of moderation and pragmatism. Even if they promote centrist policies, they can easily be wounded by the extreme partisan confrontation between right and left. It has become impossible to stay on the fence as a centrist politician.

What will happen in the next presidential election? As of now, the prospect is gloomy. The majority Democratic Party (DP) relies heavily on a group of fanatical — and blind — supporters of the majority party, known as “daughters of reform.” DP leader Lee Jae-myung and other political celebrities — such as former justice ministers Cho Kuk and Choo Mi-ae and former DP leader Song Young-gil — are only focusing on their hardline supporters and leftist fans.

The situation is no different for the governing People Power Party (PPP). Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon is one example. While rumors are spreading that he will run in the next parliamentary election in April, his eloquence is stunning. He is returning his opponents’ hate speeches with his own enmity. Conservative voters may be pleased with his language, but there are many centrists who are tired of his frequent media appearances and pointed remarks.

I am already worried that the pattern of the recent presidential elections — in which the centrists were deprived of their choices because of the fierce battle of the two most unlikable candidates — will repeat in the next presidential race in 2027. Even politicians who advocated moderation and pragmatism are starting to change their stance for votes. I hope that a group of politicians, who became famous as rising stars of pragmatism, will stay the course instead of being discouraged by low poll numbers. Only then will the political mud be cleared even a little.

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