The excitement doesn’t reach voters in S. Korea

Times Staff Writer

Posters paper downtown, urging people to vote for the candidate who promises a “Clean Korea, Reliable President,” or alternatively “A President for the Economy Who Makes It Happen.” Organizers herd supporters they bus in from the countryside for outdoor rallies, where barrel-chested policemen are dispatched to tamp down trouble and candidates are welcomed with flickering candles held aloft in the chill evening air.

All the signs of a political campaign in its frantic last stages are on display in Seoul as South Koreans prepare to elect a new president next week. Yet while rival politicians resorted to brawling in parliament Friday as they argued over corruption allegations against front-runner Lee Myung-bak, voters don’t seem to share the excitement in the campaign to replace outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun.

Perhaps it is the lack of ideological fervor between Korea’s usually dueling political left and right; perhaps voters feel burned by their initial enthusiasm for Roh, who is perceived to have failed to deliver on his rosy promises and limps to the end of his five-year term a deeply unpopular leader.


Or popular enthusiasms may be dulled simply because Lee, the former Hyundai construction company executive and later a popular mayor of Seoul, has such a commanding lead in the polls that there’s no suspense.

But whatever the reason, South Koreans seem prepared to turn away from a decade of liberal rule and elect a conservative president with all the emotion of paying a utility bill.

“Lee Myung-bak is the safe bet rather than someone who can take us to the next level of a new Korea,” says Michael Hong, the chief financial officer of Pandora TV, South Korea’s biggest video sharing website, which had been hoping for -- but hasn’t seen -- the kind of traffic and attention that YouTube is enjoying in the U.S. primaries this year.

“If the candidates were more electrifying, they might have symbolized something to the new generation of Koreans,” Hong says. “But Lee Myung-bak is an old-fashioned industrialist who represents the serious side of our society, not the light, fun side of Korea.”

Yet sticking to the basics of economic issues has brought Lee to the brink of the presidency (he’s the candidate with the poster pledging “A President for the Economy”). His poll numbers have been shaved slightly from the 50%-plus levels of two months ago. But attempts by his opponents to tar Lee with an unproven financial scandal have failed to resonate with voters. Each of the final opinion surveys, done before the required polling blackout took effect Thursday, showed him holding a massive lead.

The last polls showed Lee 25 points up on his nearest rival: liberal candidate Chung Dong-young, a former television anchorman who carries the baggage of having been a minister under Roh. Meanwhile, the shrinking liberal vote is being split between Chung and Moon Kook-hyun, who has run a surprisingly strong campaign as head of a personal political vehicle he calls the Creative Korea Party.


The two main liberal candidates agree on the urgency of merging their campaigns if they hope for any last-minute rally that could catch Lee. But meetings this week failed to find a power-sharing formula that both could accept.

Their divide leaves little prospect for an upset. Meanwhile, the old template for Korean elections appears shattered. Ideological splits that animated previous presidential elections, in which liberals and conservatives snarled at each other over how to handle the totalitarian government in North Korea, have become muted by the staleness of familiarity.

Instead, South Koreans are concerned with economic issues: how to afford decent housing that doesn’t require a brutally long commute to work; whether their children can get a decent education without the expense of after-hours tutoring; and whether they will have the economic security necessary to enjoy living in the world’s 12th largest economy.

“It seems the majority of the people have chosen a person who they believe can revive the economy, despite his slight moral faults,” says Ko Sung-kook, a political columnist for the online newspaper Pressian.

But the result is a staid campaign, even on the Internet, where so many South Koreans spend their time and where politics is played like a contact sport. There has been no sign of an online brush fire like the one in 2002, when an Internet-driven mania for Roh spawned his late-in-the-day surge to the presidency.

This time, election officials are enforcing the country’s strict code to ban online comment they deem negative. Hong says more than 65,000 videos posted by users have been removed by election commission officials, leaving little more than videos produced by the campaigns themselves.


“We have a fantastic, vibrant Internet culture here, and we wanted to promote a Web 2.0 election where people would have an impact,” says Hong, lamenting that the election commission’s vigilance in pulling content “has really stifled us.”

“They were pulling videos I thought were fine,” he says.

But Hong acknowledges that there may be another reason the amount of traffic he hoped for never materialized.

“If the candidates were more exciting or energetic, I’m sure we would have got a lot more attention,” he says. “This is just not a close election.”


Special correspondent Jinna Park contributed to this report.