By Jay Kim
The Ahn Cheol-soo sensation that broke out before the mayoral by-election in Seoul made the Korean political establishment think about a lot of things. The approval rating for Professor Ahn, over 50 percent in a poll, surprised the nation.
When he announced that he was not going to run for mayor of Seoul and expressed his support for Park Won-soon, a civil activist whose popularity was much lower than his, he surprised the nation once again. This sudden rise of Professor Ahn clearly shows how disappointed the people are with their current politicians, and how eagerly they want a new, fresh face.
The current state of our political reality is enough to make anyone frustrated and disappointed. For example, the free-lunch referendum that brought the resignation of Mayor Oh Se-hoon ended up just wasting a tremendous amount of taxpayers’ money (estimated at 31 billion won) on a political fight between the ruling party and its opposition, as the referendum turned into a vote of confidence in Mayor Oh.
The case of Kwak No-hyun, the education superintendent of Seoul, was another blot on the nation’s political system. He claimed that he gave 200 million won out of good will to his opponent in the superintendent election, Seoul University of Education Professor Park Myoung-gee, because the law he has learned and taught is warm and just. This logic is strange indeed.
The deepening distrust and disgust against current politicians is the essential cause of the Ahn Cheol-soo sensation. Now people no longer regard conservatives and the liberals as political groups divided by their ideological differences on the issues that arise from the pursuit of people’s happiness. Instead, people think of them as political groups that only care about their own interests and the expansion of their political power.
In this current situation, Professor Ahn’s announcement not to run for mayor of Seoul seems to suggest that he has the presidential ambitions for next year in mind. However, I am pessimistic about whether he can maintain his amazing current popularity for a year and remain as the people’s candidate until the presidential election. Until now, Ahn is a fresh face untainted by politics, only recognizable from events like the “Youth Concert.”
However, the way people look at him can change completely once he runs for president. People will start making attacks on him, and you need to wait and see how long the Ahn sensation will continue after those hypocrites who are willing to walk over so many dead bodies just to get votes go after him. I’ve also already seen editorials that expressed disappointment over those who entered into politics just because they got recognition in the polls.
This reminds me of Ross Perot, who was once a promising newcomer, like Professor Ahn, that brought a breath of fresh air into the American politics. Perot, whose fortune is worth $3.4 billion in 2011, is one of the 100 richest people in the U.S. He ran for president on his image and ability as a successful businessman in 1992. It was a time when people’s disappointment and disgust against political establishment was highly elevated.
The sudden entrance to the race by Perot, who criticized the political establishment as a group of incompetent people who only sought to further their own personal interests instead of the better future of the country, made him a hero overnight. He emphasized that he was moderate, hired Ed Rollins, a Republican, and Hamilton Jordan, a Democrat as his campaign managers, and shouted out “United We Stand America” during his speeches.
He supported traditional liberal positions such as anti-abortion rights and anti-gun control, as well as conservative positions such as closing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His support once reached over 39 percent. At the time, 31 percent supported Bush and 25 percent supported Clinton.
However, Perot’s stubborn personality trait, typical of all other successful CEOs, of not listening to others, was revealed to be a problem. Finally, Republican Rollins resigned due to Perot’s stubbornness, and Democrat Jordan also resigned as a campaign adviser. His popularity went down to 25 percent. But the real downfall of Perot came during the first presidential debate. The rating of the debate was very high, because people wondered what kind of person Perot was.
During this debate, Perot gave a poor argument against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). At the time, 57 percent of Americans supported NAFTA. After his poor performance against the experienced Bush and the handsome, polished young Clinton, his popularity nosedived from 39 percent to 7.9 percent.
There was such a big difference between Perot as a successful businessman and Perot as a presidential candidate, a potential leader of the U.S. His 1992 dream to become president failed when he received 18.9 percent (19,741,000) of the vote. Perot ran for president as the candidate of the Reform Party in 1996, but he lost again, failing even to join the presidential debates.
People long for a fresh face in Korea, having long since tired of endless political fights between the ruling and opposition parties. However, I wonder how Professor Ahn will look to the people when he becomes a presidential candidate. Furthermore, if he runs as an independent, he will look less promising. It is hopeless for him to get a nomination from the governing Grand National Party.
If he gets a nomination from the main opposition Democratic Party, or becomes a single candidate of the broader opposition camp, he would have a chance in the race. However, it does not look so easy for him to get that nomination, due to the vested interests of other politicians.
It is dangerous to run for president without any political experience. The president of Korea is not such an easy position to hold. One can never exclude the possibility that Professor Ahn’s popularity will turn into a mirage overnight as Perot’s did.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).