Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University, dropped out of the race for the Seoul mayorship on September 6 in spite of the public’s overwhelming support. He made a concession to Park Won-soon, executive director of the Hope Institute, with people paying keen attention to what the future has in store for him.
Some are predicting that the executive director will stand for the office of the mayor, and that Ahn will run for president next year. The division of labor theory is regarded as quite plausible by many.
“Unlike lawmakers, a mayor can bring about many substantial changes,” the dean told reporters on September 2, adding, “A president is someone that is able to alter things more fundamentally, but I don’t have any intention to become that person myself.” By saying this, he implied that it was the mayor’s position that he was interested in. Since then, a series of opinion polls have shown that the majority of the public is favoring him as the next mayor of Seoul. However, he has made the concession after a few days from the remark, and political experts are analyzing that it will open up his way to presidency.
“There is some consensus that he has been in pursuit of the presidency, not the post of the mayor, from the get go,” said a ruling party figure, adding, “He is the public’s favorite but he opted not to run for the mayorship, the natural corollary of which is that he is making arrangements to become the next president.” In the meantime, some are analyzing that, regardless of his real intention, he has become a part of the big picture regarding the presidential race since the declaration.
What all of them agree on is that the dean’s political weight will skyrocket once Ahn and Park turn themselves into an influential faction commensurate with the ruling and opposition parties during the mayoral election. As a result, the political experiment Ahn is engaged in is likely to take the shape of efforts to reform the current political world.
“If the dean is jumping into the political arena with even a slight possibility of running for the presidency, it seems that his own faction will be formed, though it may not necessarily take the form of a political party,” said Lee Taek-soo, head of polling firm Realmeter.
Why Ahn Cheol-soo?
Then, why is Ahn becoming such a sensation? The answer may be found in established politicians’ behavior, that is, everlasting political strife and disputes that are far from constructive, and the public aversion caused by the behavior. The enthusiasm for Ahn can be interpreted as the people’s desire for him to become their next leader, and this is why he is emerging so quickly as the preferred presidential candidate of the opposition.
For years, the dean has increased his popularity by appearing on TV talk shows like the one he is currently doing with Dr. Park Kyung-chul, an economic expert and executive director of Shinsegye Hospital in Andong City, North Gyeongsang Pro-vince. In the program, the two have off-ered constructive criticism regarding the Korean society as a whole and suggested alternatives to back their claims up. For example, Park claimed that more opportunities must be given in regards to social equality and that the winner-takes-all mentality be rejected so as to give a second chance to those who failed to make it once. He has cited such cases as a daughter of the chairperson of a conglomerate founding an advertising agency to produce all of the ads of the affiliated companies and a son setting up a credit provider to sweep their installment transactions, strangling those young guys dreaming of running their own ad agencies or credit providers. Ahn, in the same context, has argued that the Korean government, in the myth that conglomerate growth reflects that of the entire national economy, is sitting on its hands while some conglomerates are preying on small firms.
However, the view that Ahn’s political experiment will fizzle out is also gaining ground. According to advocates of this opinion, his popularity could go up in smoke if Park Won-soon fails to become the mayor or as the ruling party, the opposition and the press assay his political qualifications.
“The prediction that Ahn will run for the presidency is just the guesswork of Yoon Yeo-joon, who is considered his mentor,” said a political insider, adding, “The dean is not the type of guy to say one thing and mean another and you can believe him and take his word at face value when he says he is not interested in power.” Furthermore, many of his acqu-aintances are commenting that he is not so power-oriented as to go for the presidency.
“If Ahn goes for the presidency and Park for the mayor, isn’t it that the latter must make it first for the former to start?” asked professor Shin Yool of Myungji University. He continued, “The two have criticized the status quo of Korean politics and it doesn’t seem that they will follow the same way as those who they have reproached.”
In the meantime, Participation Party leader Yoo Shi-min remarked on Septem-ber 8 that Ahn will only be able to become a candidate if he can endure the heartless process of power struggle. It means that he cannot be a successful runner unless he has some desire for power.
“Politics is not only about competition among certain ideas and ideologies, but also about a contest for power, which can become very inhumane,” stated Yoo during a radio program that day. He went on, “Only when deep down he is ready to go through and withstand it will he be able to stand a chance as a presidential candidate.” Regarding the possible formation of a third faction by Ahn, he said that it would be no cakewalk. “The political spectrum in Korea is like a duopoly, dominated by the ruling Grand National Party and the Democratic Party. We have seen many politicians try to break it only to fail, including the former president Roh Moo-hyun.”
On the same day at his party headquarters, the former leader of the ruling party Jeong Mong-joon remarked that the Ahn Cheol-soo syndrome will ultimately be a boon to the entire political circle. “Though the sensation is something rather abrupt and unexpected, I regard it as a natural consequence of the people’s discontent, distrust and disappointment that have been building up for an extended period of time,” he said, adding, “And I want to say that the buck should stop at us, which is deemed by the public as a party that has failed to do its job properly and degraded itself from the champion of the people to a petty group seeking solely for its own interests.”
Meanwhile, those affiliated with Park Geun-hye, another former leader of the party, are seen to be somewhat wary of the tremendous popularity of the newcomer. Although the solid support for the female presidential candidate leading them would not collapse overnight, they are still alert to the popular sentiment that is getting gradually negative about established politicians, including themselves.
Until recently, the approval rating for her was approximately twice that of prospective opposition nominees. Now, however, the table has been turned and Ahn is tailgating her. According to the results of a September 7 survey taken by the DongA Ilbo, her approval rating stood at 40.6%, while Ahn’s was 36.1%.
What is particularly noteworthy is the movement in South Gyeongsang Pro-vince, where Busan City, Ahn’s hometown, is located. There, Park’s rating was 37.7%, 4.8 percentage points lower than that of Ahn. Furthermore, he pulled ahead of her by 4.1 percentage points in Incheon City and Gyeonggi Province, recording a 40.5% rating. The gap was even wider in South and North Jeolla Provinces -- 44.6% Vs. 25.3%.
However, she managed to outdo him in Seoul, 42.1% Vs. 38.7%. The disparity increased to 12.4% in South and North Chungcheong Provinces and no less than 44.7% in North Gyeongsang Province, where her hometown of Daegu City is located.
By age group, those in their 20s and 30s were found to be extremely loyal to Ahn. 55.1% of the former and 52.6% of the latter stood by him, these figures almost double those of Park. However, those in the 50s and older showed a clear endorsement of her, with 52.4% of them siding with her compared to just 16.3% with Ahn.