Five reasons why Park’s frontrunning South Korean presidential race is defying gravity

In many ways, it is astounding that the politician with the most momentum in South Korea, the world’s 12th largest economy, is Park Geun-hye, who announced her candidacy for president earlier this week.

Her party’s been in power for the past four years — having won an election on a promise to boost South Koreans’ wealth, it has presided over a tepid economy that follows decades of nearly phenomenal, nation-transforming economic growth.  Even worse, her party’s incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, is massively unpopular and is so implicated in corruption scandals — 19 members of his administration, including his brother, are currently implicated in scandals — that he’s popularly known as “President Rat.”  He’s also taken hits for improperly spying on domestic rivals.

Park herself is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, essentially South Korea’s dictator from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, a figure about whom, it’s safe to say, 21st century South Koreans have mixed feelings. (More on that below).

So how is it that Park not only has a chance to win South Korea’s December 19 presidential election, but dominates polls in that election as well?

Park has re-branded her party.  Park hastily re-branded her party in February as the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’), or the New Frontier Party, turning from the longtime ‘Grand National Party’ label that it held for so long.  It’s a cosmetic change, but it’s also a symbolic one — not only was Park seen as rebranding the party, she was also doing so in a way to reshape the party in her own mould and to place even more distance between herself and her intraparty rival Lee, who only very narrowly defeated Park in 2007 for the party’s presidential nomination.

Park led the Saenuri Party to an upset win in April.  Park’s rebranding was really just one step on the way to flexing her real political muscle — by winning South Korea’s parliamentary elections in April earlier this year — the Saenuri Party holds 152 seats out of 300 in South Korea’s National Assembly, to just 127 for the main opposition party, the more liberal Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’), with 21 more seats going to three smaller parties.  With Lee’s approval rating at around 20%, this was nothing short of miraculous, and confirmed that power in the Saenuri Party, to the avoidance of all doubt, rests with Park.  Although minor candidates in the Saenuri Party’s presidential primary are protesting rules they say boost Park’s chances, it seems virtually impossible for Park to lose the nomination.

Park is co-opting the message of potential competitors.  In her campaign announcement on Monday, Park emphasized creating more jobs, strengthening of South Korea’s welfare system and reducing income equality within South Korea.  Those are surprising policy goals for a candidate who comes from the political right; they mark quite a shift in emphasis from the Lee administration and the traditional laissez-faire economics of the Saenuri Party and its GNP predecessor.  Her message deftly co-opts many of the themes that Ahn Chul-soo, a businessman and likely independent presidential candidate himself, has emphasized, themes that have resonated quite well among South Koreans and which the DUP’s candidate will also certainly highlight.  The shift, of course, also helps distance Park from the unpopular Lee.

The opposition remains divided.  The DUP will hold its own primary, and former Roh administration chief of staff Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who was jailed in 1975 in protest of the elder Park’s regime, seems likely to win the nomination.  He faces more tenacious competition from within the DUP, including the governor of South Gyeongsang (the second-largest province and home to the port city of Busan) Kim Doo-kwan.  But the real threat remains Ahn, who continues to weigh his own bid (despite worries that he may prove as much a disappoint chimera as Lee and Roh Moo-hyun did).  In a Seoul Realmeter poll conducted July 2-6, Park led with 40.9% to just 20.6% for Ahn and 15.6% for Moon — although polls show the race would be much closer in a direct one-on-one race between Park and Ahn, Ahn seems unlikely to join the DUP and the DUP (for now) does not seem inclined to forfeit the race in favor of Ahn.

South Koreans have mixed feelings about the Park era.  Fairly or unfairly, views on Park (the daughter) are not easily disengaged from those of Park (the father), and her special place in South Korean national identity givers her an emotional gravitas in Korean politics that neither Moon nor Ahn can fully match.

On one hand, the elder Park represents the kind of soft authoritarianism that guided South Korea’s rise from a developing country to one of Asia’s — indeed, the world’s — most developed countries.  It is undisputable that Park’s policies lifted many South Koreans out of poverty and dragged the nation into the top economic tier of Asian economies.  Much like his Singapore contemporary, Lee Kuan Yew, he is seen as somewhat of a modern-day founding father of today’s South Korea, and Park will likely inherit much goodwill from South Koreans who look back fondly on the golden economic era of the Park regime.

On the other hand, he represents the kind of suppression that South Korea left behind in the 1980s with its turn to a robust democratic regime, and his daughter shows no signs in backing off in her defense of her father’s regime.  Indeed, despite mixed feelings about the elder Park, many South Koreans seem inclined toward the younger Park after the shrinking disappointment of both the Roh and Lee administrations, especially after over two decades of firmly established democratic institutions.

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