The Political Implications of Ahn’s Withdrawal

November 30th, 2012

Following Korean politics can be as exciting as watching a Hollywood movie. In the last 30-40 years we have seen that many things can happen when it comes to the political situation in South Korea. Dictators, assassins, coup d’etats, massacres, sex scandals, corruptions and even suicides have all occurred. To add to the mix, this year a well known professor and software mogul by the name of Ahn Cheol-soo entered the race to become President.

Wildly popular with younger generations, ruling Saenuri party officials had for some time regarded Ahn as a threat in the forthcoming December elections. But despite his youthful popularity, last Friday Ahn gave up his bid to become the new South Korean president leaving fellow progressive candidate Moon Jae-in to run head-to-head with conservative nominee Park Geun-hye.

At the news conference to announce his departure last week Ahn portrayed himself as a victim, talking to attendees in a heartrending and distressed tone.  In clarifying his departure, he apologized for his failure to transform the ‘old politics’ of South Korea after an unsuccessful negotiation to form a one ticket front with fellow progressive party leader Moon Jae-in.

However, the political implications of his comments also give the impression that Ahn’s vision to build a form of ‘new politics’ in South Korea was ultimately ruined by the ‘old party politics’ of Moon Jae-in – not his major election competitor Park Geun-hye. This disillusionment will inevitably push away some of Ahn’s supporters from the ideological circle of Moon’s progressive camp.

Since Ahn received tremendous support from a young and ideologically-free swing group of voters, their inclination to support the progressive camp could become fragile after this withdrawal. But while there is no certainty that Ahn’s supporters will shift support to the conservative candidate, it is expected that their disillusionment could even influence them to  boycott the election all together. Thus, the final result of the coming presidential election will most likely be determined by the swing voters who originally belonged to the Ahn camp.

In order to capture the 15-20% swing voters’ support base, Park Geun-hye’s campaign strategy should now be expected to make some re-adjustments. By further emphasizing her feminine image, Park’s slogan as being the “first Korean woman president” could help her attract some support from the younger swing voters. What’s more, Park’s Saenuri Party recognizes that the shifting contingent would like to see change in the current political regime. This is why the Saenuri Party is likely to base their future policies and image in a different way to incumbent President Lee Myung-bak.

Since the news conference on Ahn’s departure was arranged without the presence of Moon Jae-in, there is a chance the public may now think Moon is uncooperative and unreasonable when it comes to team-building between the two candidates. As such, if the progressive camp wish to maintain support from the swing groups it is now integral for a wholehearted and public reconciliation between Ahn and Moon.  A good first step for Moon would be in incorporating some of Ahn’s political and welfare policies to help stabilize the transition. If not, Ahn’s political withdrawal could be highly detrimental for Moon’s election campaign.

As anticipated, a final one-on-one presidential election competition will build an open game for the conservatives and the progressives. A revised election campaign by Park will be observed with an open battle on Moon likely giving her space to condemn recent NLL furor and Moon’s North Korea policy more generally. In the last one to two months, the NLL controversies have already cost Moon significant public approval for being an unreliable and weak South Korean president in defending national and border security. Coinciding with the 2nd anniversary of the Yeonpyeong attack and a possible threat of new missile test, we can expect that North Korean may re-emerge as a major driving factor in South Korea’s selection of whom will be the next leader in the Blue House.

Steve Chung is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University

Picture: Wiki Commons

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About the Author

Steve Chung

Steve Lok-wai CHUNG is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Korean Studies, University of Sydney. He graduated from Lingnan University in 2004, majoring in international relations, and obtained an MPhil in government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2008, with his thesis on “Pushing the Envelope for Transnational Political Advocacy: Unconventional Channels in EU-DPRK Relations”. His research interests include peace and reconciliation of the two Koreas, reform and development of North Korean economy and nuclear diplomacy of North Korea.