Park Geun-hye, the presidential frontrunner of the ruling Saenuri Party, has officially announced her bid to become the nation’s first woman president. She pledged to democratize the economy, create jobs and expand welfare to make Korea a country where everybody can achieve their dreams.
Park’s announcement signaled the beginning of the race for the next presidency. Ten or so candidates from the ruling and opposition parties have already joined the contest, with a couple more expected to participate, including Ahn Cheol-soo, a popular software magnate turned university professor.
Although just five months are left before the Dec. 19 election, major parties have not yet nominated their candidates. In the Saenuri Party, Park is near-unrivaled. Excluding her, the party’s presidential field is weak, all the more so because two potential candidates, Reps. Lee Jae-oh and Chung Mong-joon, have boycotted the primary, saying they would not play second fiddle to her.
In contrast, the opposition presidential field is still murky. In the main opposition Democratic United Party, seven candidates are vying for nomination. The party plans to shortlist primary runners to five around the end of this month before finalizing a candidate in September.
The party’s nominee is expected to undergo two run-offs, first with the candidate representing the United Progressive Party, a far-left party with which the DUP is likely to forge an alliance for the December vote as it did in the April parliamentary election.
The DUP candidate may hold another run-off with Ahn, who is still undecided on his presidential bid but enjoys the highest approval rating among non-Saenuri presidential hopefuls. Latest surveys show Park is in pole position but her lead over Ahn is within the margin of error.
As the presidential race is expected to heat up following Park’s announcement, we feel compelled to make a few points that each candidate should keep in mind to ensure that election campaigns are conducted in a fair and constructive way.
In the first place, all candidates should pledge to run a positive campaign. Election culture in Korea is characterized by negative campaigning. A candidate relies on negative tactics when he reckons he cannot win based on his own strengths and achievements.
In every election held in Korea thus far, most candidates tended to spend more time and energy on finding out and highlighting the negative aspects of their rivals than on selling their own proposals or publicizing their own merits.
Candidates spare no effort to dig up dirt on their opponents under the pretext of character scrutiny. Scrutinizing a candidate’s character is important. But in many cases, tracing a rival’s past is intended to assassinate their character.
Some candidates even attempt to tarnish their rivals’ reputation by making false allegations and spreading groundless rumors. One prominent victim of this type of negative tactics is Lee Hoi-chang, the Grand National Party candidate in the 1997 and 2002 presidential elections.
One of the reasons for Lee’s failure in 2002 was the allegations that his eldest son avoided compulsory military service by deliberately losing weight. The allegations, put forward by a broker for draft-dodging, turned out to be groundless in 2005. But the damage was already done and could not be reversed or rectified.
This type of character assassination should not be repeated. Candidates running in this year’s presidential election should bear in mind that the public will hold them to a higher standard, expecting a respectful and constructive campaign from them.
They need to make joint efforts to improve the nation’s election culture by refraining from mudslinging and focusing instead on issues that are important for the future of the nation and affect the everyday life of the electorate.
Another aspect of the nation’s election culture that needs to be addressed is campaign funding. No presidential election has been free from scandals involving illegally raised campaign money.
Recently, President Lee Myung-bak’s elder brother, Lee Sang-deuk, and Rep. Chung Doo-un of the ruling Saenuri Party, who was a key campaigner for the president, have been investigated on allegations that they received illegal campaign funds during the 2007 presidential race.
The downfall of the two politicians should provide a lesson for all presidential contenders. They need to follow the rules in raising and spending campaign funds to keep campaign finance clean and transparent. Otherwise, they could find themselves in trouble after the election.