From left: A poster for presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party is ripped in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on Feb. 21. A poster used for the campaign of presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is damaged in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on Feb. 24. (People Power Party/Jeonbuk Privincial Police Agency)
Whoever wins the 20th presidential election on March 9, the winner faces the complex task of bringing unity among South Koreans -- a pledge repeated by almost all recent presidents -- and measure out policies to bring naysayers to the table for the next five years.
The race so far has largely been centered on mudslinging and denunciations, especially between ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea and his main opposition rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party. The candidates laid out visions and promises, but they also dedicated time and effort to to defame and discredit each other.
Surveys show that many voters are displeased with how the race is running, mainly because they are faced with growing allegations of misconduct and criminal behaviors of the two leading candidates. Survey results show voters increasingly disfavored the candidates and their backgrounds.
A Gallup Korea survey of 1,001 adults conducted from Feb. 8 to 10 showed that only 34 percent of voters favorably viewed Lee, with the same figure for Yoon. Minor opposition People's Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo was the most highly rated candidate at 37 percent.
A Realmeter survey of 1,009 adults conducted from Feb. 26 to 27 showed that 51.9 percent of respondents picked Lee as the candidate who lies the most, followed by Yoon at 48.7 percent.
Hatred and animosity has grown accordingly among supporters. Online community sites were flooded with posts and comments denouncing the candidates' backgrounds and public comments. Some voters told The Korea Herald that they have grown to disfavor both frontrunners, and are troubled at being forced to pick the lesser of two evils.
"Denunciation happens in every presidential race, but I think it is especially fierce this time," said a 32-year-old surnamed Seo based in Seoul. "I got into a lot of arguments with my friends when talking about who to pick for the election. I am scared to talk about politics anywhere."
Presidential candidates certainly recognize the divide and growing animosity, which prompted them to make pledges about personnel appointments for the purpose of promoting unity in administrative works, and conducting politics beyond party allegiance.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea on Sunday ruled to push for a series of reforms toward forming a coalition government as the party’s official stance. The move came just days before the election in a bid to emphasize the party’s support for bringing an end to the current system, in which only two main political factions are the main actors.
The Democratic Party of Korea vowed in a meeting of its legislators to have a prime minister recommended by the National Assembly, pass a bill to prohibit the launch of satellite parties, bring a runoff election system and change the current single five-year term limit for the presidency to a two four-year term limit like the United States.
"Candidate Lee Jae-myung and the Democratic Party of Korea voted for today’s resolution to bring political shifts and provide more power to the people and reduce the emperor-like power of the presidency, thereby creating a coalition government for the people," Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Rep. Song Young-gil said in the meeting.
Democratic Party of Korea floor leader Rep. Yun Ho-jung said the meeting was held to officially show the party’s will to bring legislative changes and implement new policies toward forming a coalition government, adding the party will form a new committee to discuss details on their procedures.
Yoon and the People Power Party also vowed to work towards forming a coalition government, emphasizing Yoon will appoint experts and advisers regardless of party allegiance if he wins the presidency.
"There are also admirable figures with right minds inside the Democratic Party of Korea, but those who brought failure in the five-year rule of the Democratic Party of Korea's government have rushed to candidate Lee Jae-myung and became a leading force of creating 'the Democratic Party of Lee Jae-myung,'" Yoon said in a speech during a campaign rally Tuesday held in Dongjak-gu, southern Seoul.
"If I take charge of the government, I will successfully collaborate with righteous politicians from the Democratic Party of Korea, achieve unity among the people and bring economic growth."
Yoon added in a later campaign event that he will work to have politics run beyond ideological divides while adhering to the principles of free democracy and market-led economy.
Bringing unity and coalition beyond party allegiance have been frequently discussed among presidential candidates in past elections, and former presidents had made political gestures upon taking office to bridge the divide created from fierce mudslinging and denouncements during campaigns.
Former President Kim Dae-jung formed an alliance with his rival candidate Kim Jong-pil during his race for the presidency in 1997, and formed a coalition government that gave Kim Jong-pil the seat of prime minister and power to appoint a deputy prime minister to head the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
But disputes in the political circle, which debilitated the power of the alliance, later resulted in the coalition government‘s breakdown.
Kim Dae-jung's successor Roh Moo-hyun in 2005 proposed to bring changes to the electoral system and suggested giving the power of nomination for some cabinet seats to the opposition bloc. The move was met with fierce opposition and ultimately failed.
In an acceptance speech for the 2012 presidential election, former President Park Geun-hye vowed to bring major political reforms and promote unity among Koreans by forming a new committee tasked with pursuing policy changes and root out corruption in politics.
Yet a look into today’s divide among voters indicates their promises weren’t so readily kept. Experts say the promises for a coalition government made in the ongoing race are not likely to be fulfilled, for a candidate will be less inclined to keep up with their vows after winning the election.
"The dynamics are totally different after the winner is announced, and it is safe to bet that these promises made just before the election are not likely to be kept to their core," local political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon told The Korea Herald.
"The winner will be burdened with rewarding key figures after winning the election with nominations and appointments, so the job of taking care of the opposition bloc is usually put on the back burner."
Rhee said the promises made by Lee Jae-myung's camp are not binding enough to be actually fulfilled, but predicted Yoon would be forced to make some gesture towards forming a coalition government as the People Power Party does not have any control of the National Assembly.
"The Democratic Party of Korea has a record of walking back from its promises, like bypassing the law to create a satellite party in the last parliamentary elections, so I think it will be easy for the ruling party to shun the promises it has made recently," Rhee added.
"But for Yoon, running the government by himself will be extremely difficult when the Democratic Party of Korea controls more than 170 legislative seats (in the National Assembly), so he will be forced to make some compromise in forming his cabinet and launching policies."For more information regarding the survey results, go to the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission homepage.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org