I’m not going to too spend much time picking over the carcass of the recent Korean presidential elections, but I will make a few inexpert comments and point toward some reading matter for those who are interested. Then we can move on…
Obviously no surprises here, but the question is raised of why it was so comprehensive a victory. Clearly the very strong (can I use the word palpable when I’m 9000 miles away?) sense of betrayal felt by Roh’s erstwhile supporters and much of the rest of the progressive-leaning Korean population had a profound effect. No doubt there were many who voted for Lee and somehow believe that he is a ’safe pair of hands’, but I have little doubt there were more who voted against Roh out of bitter disappointment, and even spite.
There are echoes here of the French elections in 2007 in which an electorate that still broadly considers itself ‘progressive’ (according to opinion polls) ends up voting in a rightwing leader. This sort of so-called ‘masochistic politics’ even has echoes of the US situation, where some commentators have puzzled over why the working class would repeatedly vote for a candidate (George W) who acted explicitly against their own interests. Personally I don’t think these political phenomena are so difficult to understand in the context of ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ political parties that appear different on a superficial and rhetorical level but then implement exactly the same neoliberal and pro-imperialist policies as one another. This is something the British electorate has been faced with ever since Blair came to power over ten years ago and which has now reached bizarre proportions with the Conservative party regularly positioning itself to the left of Labour. My feeling is that voters know very well that they’re not really being offered a choice any more, even the limited choice between traditional conservatism and watered-down social democracy. Thus voting criteria move more toward the US model in which personalities and a sense of who will be the most able technocrat to run the state for the next 4-5 years become most important among those who actually bother to vote at all.
What of Lee himself? So far only one interesting thing has come to my attention about his plans for the Korean economy (forgetting for a moment his ‘Chonggyech’on on steroids’ canal plan). Despite all the nonstop free market rhetoric it looks suspiciously as though Lee will be taking a somewhat more statist (or perhaps ‘chaebolist’) approach to the economy than his two ‘liberal’ predecessors. On the one hand, massive civil construction projects like the ‘Grand Canal‘ can be seen as somewhat Keynesian in nature, but more strikingly, as Ch’oe Il-bung has pointed out, Lee’s plans for reviving the economy more generally have something of a smell of the old developmental dictatorship about them (there are strong hints at a return to centralised economic planning). I haven’t read it myself yet, but here is Prof. Jeong Seong-jin’s analysis of Lee Myung-bak’s planned economic policies.
The situation in the DLP
The most obviously disappointing outcome of the elections is that virtually none of Roh’s disappointed former supporters went to the left and the Democratic Labour Party did rather badly (although perhaps not as badly as some think, since it retained its support base in some key areas). This seems perplexing considering the considerable strength of the movements against the Korea-US FTA, the continued use of South Korean troops in Iraq and the mass casualisation of the Korean workforce under Roh. For answers to this question you might want to look at the various intelligent analyses in the Counterfire newspaper (in Korean). One important factor to bear in mind is that the misfortunes, defeats and scandals that have beset the KCTU (main left union federation) in recent years have obviously had an impact on the credibility of the DLP since it basically originated as the political wing of the federation and is still very close to it.
Whatever the reasons for the DLP’s poor showing (and they are undoubtedly multiple), it has been the trigger for an internal crisis that is threatening to split the party. It would be a mistake however, to think that these divisions within the DLP are something new - it has always been an amalgam of very different factions. And the tensions between the two main factions came to the surface very clearly before in late 2006 when the Roh administration sought to use a supposed ’spy ring’ within the party as a scapegoat in the febrile atmosphere after North Korea’s nuclear weapon test.
I’m sure I would be accused of being overly simplistic if I described the current split as being along the lines of the old ‘NL’ (National Liberation) and ‘PD’ (People’s Democracy) factions of the 80s and 90s, although there is some truth in this. Basically, as far as I can make out, the more moderate factions (i.e. more rightwing and more social democratic factions) in the party along with some sectarian radical left elements, under the general banner of the ‘Equality Faction’ (평등파/P’yongdungp’a - including many former PD people) are attempting to get rid of the more old fashioned left-nationalist ‘Independence Faction’ (자주파/Chajup’a - basically NL), or split the party if they cannot achieve this. The P’yongdungp’a accuse the Chajup’a of being in thrall to North Korea (종북주의) and exercising undue dominance over the party. Many big hitters both within the DLP as well as some on the outside are now openly calling for the founding of a new party, presumably purged of those power-hungry pro-North elements.
As the analysis in Counterfire by Kim Ha-young points out, this faction fight is not really about the supposed pro-North leanings of the dominant Chajup’a faction (they weren’t considered a problem before, so why now?), but has more to do with a simple power struggle within the party as well as a desire, among some at least, to move the party in a rightward direction. The basic fact is that the coming South Korean government, like all those before it, will use the accusation of being pro-North whenever it wants to physically suppress the left or simply smear its image. And this will happen whether or not the DLP purges its (rather mildly) pro-North Chajup’a elements.
Clearly both sides in this battle for the DLP are not without their political problems, but the Korean working class and the left in general will be immensely stronger in the tough months and years ahead if it has a single, united left party to articulate its interests in the political arena. Unfortunately it doesn’t look as though this will be the case.
If you want more on this in English, Jamie at Two Koreas points out that there are some articles up at the new NewsCham English website.