Two years of rising disquiet about the cost of living and the Covid-19 pandemic – set against the backdrop of a fierce gender war – Moon’s Democratic party is now the heir apparent. Lee Jaemyung is trailing in the polls.
Presidential hopefuls engage in sexism and defend themselves against allegations of racism.
Itler insults, shamanistic intrigue, and some colourful language are all part of the mix. South Korea was never going to be able to match the vitriol surrounding Park Geun Hye’s abrupt removal from office five year ago for corruption charges, for which she would spend three years in prison.
However, the campaign leading to Wednesday’s election of the next president has given Park’s chaotic exit a chance.
After weeks of rancour, the world’s 10th largest economy will likely need a period for national reconciliation. However, no one is suggesting that the price of failure will be paid with a submachine gun.
This week’s election is not as close as the 2017 election, in which the left-leaning Moon Jaein was elected to the presidential Blue House by an angry electorate.
A week before Wednesday’s vote, the most recent survey showed Yoon Sukyel, the conservative challenger to the People Power party, slightly ahead.
The ghosts of Park (the daughter of a former South Korean dictator) appeared in the current campaign when Yoon and his spouse were accused of being connected to a shamanistic healing practitioner who, in exchange for advice, was given a decision-making position.
Yoon was particularly affected by the claims. Ironically, Yoon had been part of the legal team that pursued Park following her impeachment. Her downfall began when she revealed that a longtime friend of hers, whose father was the leader of a mysterious religious cult to influence policy.
Some wondered for a time if South Korea’s political future would be decided by spiritualism.
Park aside, Kim Dae Jung, who was elected to office in 1998 after moving the site of his father’s tomb on the advice of a shaman, reportedly won. According to media reports, Yoon’s wife, who was told by a shaman to change the Blue House’s location by an elder, would vote for Yoon to be elected.
They’re not the only ones: Yoon Yeojoon, a former minister of the environment, suggested that it would be easier for South Korean business leaders and politicians to count the number who didn’t pick up the phone with a trusted shaman prior to making an important decision.
However, last month saw the shamanism row fade amid claims that senior Democratic party figures may have been present at a ritual in which Yoon and his wife were listed as guests.
However, this did not lead to a civilised campaign. It was instead described as a revenge operation by conservatives loyal to Park, who was pardoned last year.
His year-end presidential election was more dominated by negative campaigning than any previous election. The mutual hatred will not easily go away after the election.
Choi Jin is the director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership, Seoul.
Voters are demanding action on skyrocketing Seoul house prices, stagnant growth, and youth unemployment. However, the frontrunners continue to trade insults and deny allegations of impropriety.
Yoon claimed Lee’s party used tactics of Hitler, Mussolini and others. Lee’s allies referred to Yoon as a “dictator” or “an empty can”.
Lee is currently being investigated over a suspect land-development deal. He opened his campaign by apologising for a family phone call that was profane. Since then, rumours have swirled about links to organised crime.
Yoon has, however, made many gaffes. The most recent was a “tone-deaf” (and now-deleted) tweet about Ukraine. It featured a tangerine that had an angry face drawn on it as a reference to the country’s 2004 Orange revolution.
When it asked about the priorities of the candidates, Dong-A Ilbo newspaper spoke on behalf of many South Koreans. In a recent editorial, it asked: “Isn’t our national fate too bleak with an unpleasant presidential election that requires us to choose the lesser of two evils?”
An angry electorate, the worst pandemic coronavirus wave, and a North Korea who has rediscovered its penchant for ballistic missile testing, it is possible that political reality quickly overrides campaign animosity as the winner prepares for the election in May.
Many fear that the politically-motivated investigations against the candidate who was defeated will continue, despite Yoon and Lee’s promises during a TV debate.
Now we have an election race similar to Squid Game. But it will be the responsibility of the new president to pull us out.
Cho Jinman is a professor at Duksung Women’s University, Seoul.
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