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In praise of Yoo Seong-min

His will be a rough and lonely fight.
Apr 20,2017
One of the mysteries in the presidential election is Yoo Seong-min of the conservative Bareun Party. The televised debate on April 13 was a rediscovery of Yoo. After other candidates said he had won the debate, the Bareun Party praised the moment as a revolution in debate. But his support in polls still remains at 2 to 3 percent, the lowest among candidates. Some Bareun Party members are even demanding he drop out of the race.

Yoo has fallen into a swamp. Conservative voters consider him a traitor who contributed to the downfall of President Park Geun-hye. Liberals see him as a Park collaborator because he served as her chief of staff when she was head of the ruling party. It is doubtful if the five remaining televised debates will help his ratings.

It’s not even clear if he will be able to finish the race. The Bareun Party is short of manpower and money, and its members are divided between factions based in Busan/South Gyeongsang and Daegu/North Gyeongsang. Some are even considering defection to the People’s Party led by centrist Ahn Cheol-soo or the Liberty Korea Party, formerly the ruling party.

Another concern is campaign funding. The government will not reimburse expenses if he gets less than 10 percent of votes. Yoo at the moment cannot afford to buy television spots or online ads. His spokesman, Ji Sang-wook, said he would bravely continue the rough and lonely journey.

Yoo is in a corner for sure. People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo’s campaign poster does not include the name of his party, just a message that “the people will win.” His intention is clear. Ahn has easily secured the conservative votes that might have gone to former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who both decided not to run. But if Ahn decides to enlist the support of the Bareun Party, he will lose the liberal vote. Ahn is walking on a tight rope.

Moon Jae-in, the leading contender of the liberal Democratic Party, is prioritizing “integration” as his campaign message, giving less emphasis to “ending deep-rooted vices.” Park Geun-hye has left such a malicious legacy that conservative politics has collapsed. The liberal power grab is close to completion, as all the leading candidates are from opposition parties. Voters are weighing between Moon and Ahn on who will bring about better change. For Moon, it would be a critical loss to adhere to cleaning up vices. This would result in conservatives voting for Ahn Cheol-soo instead of the Liberty Korea Party’s Hong Joon-pyo.

In this election, an unfamiliar trend that cannot be understood within the existing political rhetoric is evident. Voters are choosing a candidate not because of ideology or policies but because they don’t like the other options. And for Ahn Cheol-soo, his support group has completely changed. Five years ago, he was popular among young voters in their 20s and 30s. Now, he appeals to the older generation in their 50s and 60s.

Since voters nowadays are well informed, public opinion can change quickly on social media. During last year’s legislative elections, voters immediately punished the ruling party because of the despicable pro-Park nomination scandal. In the Democratic primary, too, Moon Jae-in’s overwhelming lead began to slow after rival An Hee-jung expressed his anger at Moon and after Moon made a slip of the tongue over his supporters’ text messages and donations.

Yoo Seong-min is losing ground as Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo are closing in on swing voters. His already low approval ratings might fall further. Nevertheless, I hope he does his best to finish the race. On a runner coming in last at a marathon, famous writer Park Wan-suh once wrote, “I’ve never seen such an honestly struggling, honestly lonely face before.” I want to see that face on Yoo.

At age 23, Abraham Lincoln ran for Illinois state assembly. “I am young and unknown to many of you … My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this country, and if elected, they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.” Lincoln lost the election, but two years later, he was elected to the assembly.

Two centuries ago, Edmund Burke, whom Yoo admires, told the voters of Bristol that when local interests were against national interests, he, as a member of Parliament, would support the good of the entire nation. Burke was ultimately elected to the seat and became the symbol of modern conservatism.

Politics sells values. In this election, the miracle of Yoo’s victory won’t happen easily. But the way to revive conservatism is to advocate true conservative values and seek voters’ judgment no matter how many elections are lost.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 19, Page 35

*The author is a senior editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Chul-ho