The incredibly shrinking Lee Myung-bak

South Korea’s presidential elections never feature incumbents — the president is limited to a single five-year term — but that doesn’t mean incumbents don’t feature prominently in presidential elections.

In 2007, Chung Dong-young suffered from his ties to president Roh Moo-hyun, under whose administration Chung served as unification minister, and to some degree, Moon Jae-in, the presidential candidate of the liberal Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’) and Roh’s former chief of staff.

But given that incumbent president Lee Myung-bak, who will leave office as one of South Korea’s most unpopular presidents, garners approval ratings of around 20%, you’d expect that the candidate of Lee’s Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’), formerly the Grand National Party, would be suffering even more, right?

Wrong.  In South Korea’s presidential race this year, one of the reasons that Park Geun-hye has consistently held a lead over Moon has been her successful distancing from the Lee administration (although that lead is narrowing fast, especially after Park made a gaffe in the second presidential debate Monday indicating she wanted to ‘invigorate’ the underground economy).

Moon has consistently attacked Park for her party’s economic record, but the charges have not (so far) erased Moon’s deficit, even after posters surfaced trying to tie the two together as ‘Lee Myung Park Geun-hye.’

If anything, Park has been more successful by hammering away at lingering doubt about the Roh administration and Moon’s ties to it as Roh’s chief of staff.

That’s in part because while Park has attacked Roh’s administration, she’s also shown no compunction in attacking Lee’s record as well:

“The Roh Moo-hyun government wasted a period of prosperity in the world economy by indulging in ideological debates and power struggles, leading to the erosion in working-class living standards. The Lee Myung-bak government put growth before everything and failed to make lives better. I will not be a leader who will repeat the mistakes of previous governments,” Park said at a rally in Seogwipo, Jeju Island.

During the campaign, Park has attacked Lee’s administration for having failed middle class people and for exacerbating income inequality — an issue that both Park and Moon had pledged to make a top priority if elected.  Despite the rhetoric, there’s really no indication that Park’s administration would mark a vast policy difference from Lee’s administration.  If anything, Korean conservatives are incredibly united behind Park’s candidacy — more so than at any other time since the 1987 election.

But Park has long been known as an intraparty rival of Lee — no one would ever accuse Park of harboring secret affection for Lee or his accomplishments.

Park, whose father Park Chung-hee, was South Korea’s president from 1961 to 1979, appeared set to run for president in 2008 after being dubbed the ‘Queen of Elections’ as the GNP’s chair, leading the GNP to outstanding parliamentary victories in 2004 and 2006.  She famously returned to the campaign trail even after an assailant slashed an 11-centimeter knife wound into her face.

Despite several incidents of violating election law, Lee became mayor of Seoul in 2002 and governed to general acclaim, in part for making the concrete Seoul much greener, especially with respect to restoring of the Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul.  Before serving in politics, Lee spent three years at Hyundai, culminating as CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction.

Lee, however, managed to steal the Grand National Party’s nomination away from Park in 2008.  In the party’s primary, Lee won only narrowly over Park — in total, 49.56% to 48.06%.  Although Lee would go on to win the 2007 presidential election in a landslide, he quickly became unpopular in office, and he’s never really recovered.

Myriad corruption and scandal allegations, some involving Lee’s family, have pushed his approval ratings south of 20% for parts of 2012.  Lee’s pursued a more hawkish policy against North Korea (in contrast to the prevailing ‘Sunshine’ Policy of the late 1990s and early 2000s), and his policy of pursuing high GDP growth through tax cuts for the wealthy and further financing for chaebol, South Korea’s largest, internationally known conglomerates, has met with disapproval in the wake of growing disparity between rich and poor.

In fact, as the GNP prepared to contest the 2012 parliamentary elections, Park assumed control over the party as chair of an ‘Emergency Committee’ and ultimately rebranded the GNP as the ‘Saenuri’ Party — the ‘New Frontier’ Party.  With her resurgence as the head of the newly christened Saenuri, Park made clear that the party’s new frontier was all about Park and that there would be no room in Park’s new frontier for Lee and his backers.

Against all odds, notwithstanding Lee’s unpopularity, Park’s Saenuri party won the April 2012 elections, taking a small majority in the South Korean national assembly by netting 25 more seats than the DUP.  Her bravura performance in April established Park, not only as the all-but-crowned Saenuri presidential nominee, but the odds-on frontrunner for the Blue House.

Park has held that advantage throughout the entire race, especially when software entrepreneur and professor Ahn Cheol-soo was running for president, splitting liberal voters torn between Ahn’s promise of a new politics in South Korea and the DUP’s Moon.  Ahn’s withdrawal from the race in late November and begrudging endorsement of Moon has tightened the race, although Park’s continued to lead polls, if somewhat narrowly.

The dynamic in the presidential race is not unlike that in the 2008 U.S. presidential race — the wildly unpopular incumbent (George W. Bush) was limited from running for reelection, the outgoing administration’s vice president (Dick Cheney) chose not to run for president, their party’s candidate was Bush’s fierce rival from the 2000 Republican primaries (John McCain), and no one in the race was particularly interested in running on the strength of the outgoing administration’s accomplishments.

Unlike in that election, however, it remains unclear whether Moon can convince sufficient numbers of South Korean voters that a vote for Park is a vote to continue the policies of the Lee administration.

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