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Park Won-soon, civil servant or political powerhouse?

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Published : 2014-02-05 20:40
Updated : 2014-02-05 20:44

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (Yonhap)

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon began his career in the public eye as a political nobody, but in less than three years he appears to have grown into a formidable presence as he now prepares for reelection.

While his party flounders, barely managing to keep its support ratings above 20 percent, various polls have put public support for Park serving a second term at 35-50 percent.

The situation in 2011, when he was running as an independent in the primary election to choose a single liberal opposition candidate for Seoul mayor, was very different.

He began with an approval rating of less than 5 percent, falling far short of even that of independent Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, who was not even officially in the race.

The situation, however, took a dramatic turn after Ahn declared his support for Park. Almost overnight, Park became the favorite for the progressive bloc’s primary election, and went on to take office as the mayor of Seoul.

The days of Park being an obscure figure are long gone, regardless of whether it was his or Ahn’s doing.

Recent opinion polls place Park, who later joined the main opposition Democratic Party, as much as 15 percentage points ahead of potential Saenuri Party candidates.

Such results have sent rival groups scurrying to find a candidate strong enough to give Park a run for his money.

The ruling Saenuri Party is reported to be contacting former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik for the role, and even heavyweight Rep. Chung Mong-joon has been mentioned as a potential candidate.

Chung is one of only two incumbent lawmakers to have won a parliamentary seat for seven terms. He has also served as the chairman of ruling party, and is considered to be a potential runner for future presidential elections.

Experts, however, say that the poll results do not tell the whole story, and that the lead given to Park may even spell trouble for the incumbent mayor.

According to political analysts, the incumbent chief of a local government enjoys what is known as the “incumbent’s premium” which usually gives them ratings well over 50 percent in polls.

Regardless of such political analysis, the majority view at Seoul City Hall appears to be that Park should stay on.

“I hope (the mayor) doesn’t change. Regardless of supporting Park or not, a new mayor means changes (in Seoul government) and that means needing to adapt again, it is chaotic,” a Seoul official said declining to be named.

Seoul officials’ desire to keep Park in office, however, may not be as simple a matter as bureaucrats’ tendency to prefer the status quo.

Park is said to be much less authoritarian than his predecessors, a trait that has worked in his favor particularly with younger civil servants.

For those higher up the ladder, Park’s term so far appears to have been very different from what went on before.

According to Seoul officials, Park is a workaholic and early in his term he worked for most of the day, sleeping only three or four hours, forcing Seoul City’s top-tier officials to keep pace.

Politician or administrator?

Despite his growing presence as the chief of the nation’s capital, Park appears to have maintained relative political ambiguity, which experts see as his main advantage.

“In a situation that has an atmosphere of distrust for politics, Park is perceived less as a politician (than other potential candidates),” said Yoon Hee-woong, head of the public opinion research team at the policy consulting firm Min Consulting.

“This is one of the reasons why his support rating is more than double that of the party he belongs to.”

Yoon also said that Park’s actions since taking office have consolidated the image that he values citizens’ opinions more than his predecessors.

Some observers say that Park may be a practitioner of “new politics.”

Although the concept remains vague with no clear definition, not even from its main proponent Ahn, the term has been taken to mean transparent politics that pays closer heed to the voters.

Since taking office in late 2011, Park has emphasized welfare and other policies designed to be of direct help to citizens, including those suggested by members of the public. Under his administration, Seoul has increased public access to City Hall and employed social media as a communication channel between the city government and the public.

Critics, however, say the idea that Park is engaging in a “new politics” is nonsensical.

“It may be true that he tries to build such an image, but a mayor is an administrator not a politician. It’s illogical to say he practices ‘new politics,’” Myongji University professor Shin Yul said.

“He is a very politically shrewd person. When he said that he could yield (to Ahn) a hundred times over if it would benefit the citizens, I thought that this man was more like a seasoned politician than a former civic activist.”

In recent interviews, Park said that he would be prepared to yield to a candidate backed by Ahn in the upcoming election if such a step was clearly beneficial to Seoul citizens, and that his relationship with the independent lawmaker remains strong.

Shin, however, projected that the Park-Ahn relationship will not last for long saying that both men have their sights on the presidential office.

In addition to accusations of masquerading as a man with no political ambitions, Park’s capabilities as an administrator have also been brought into question, mainly by the conservatives.

“Within advancement, there is growth. When jobs and added value should constantly be created (by a city), Seoul has regressed in that regard over the past two years,” Saenuri Party supreme council member Lee Hye-hoon, the first ruling party member to declare his intention to run in this year’s Seoul mayoral election, said in a recent interview.

Although Park’s critics say otherwise, figures paint a mixed picture for his term so far.

Of Park’s key pledges, welfare-related plans such as cutting the University of Seoul’s tuition fees, increasing child care facilities and gradual introduction of free school meals have been completed.

The former lawyer’s plan to reduce Seoul city’s 25 trillion won ($2.3 billion) debt by 7 trillion won, however, is unlikely to be realized within his term.

In addition, Park’s approach to construction and civil engineering projects ― a major source of job creation for local governments ― raised criticism.

Since taking office, he scrapped a number of redevelopment plans and put a halt to his predecessor’s Hangang River Renaissance Project.

According to Statistics Korea, the number of employed people in Seoul rose at the second-lowest rate among the country’s seven largest cities between 2011 and 2013.

The figure for Seoul came in at 1.7 percent. The only other major metropolis that saw a smaller increase was Ulsan, with 0.4 percent. In comparison, the figure for the nation as a whole came in at 3.4 percent.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)

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