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(Yearender) Presidential race highlights public demand for change, reform

All Headlines 08:00 December 21, 2012

By Lee Joon-seung

SEOUL, Dec. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's presidential race that ended with the victory of Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party clearly highlighted the public's growing discontent with "politics as usual" and demand for economic reforms and social change, election watchers said Friday.

Demand for sweeping change that was reflected in the so-called Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon effectively influenced policies and pledges made by presidential hopefuls and their parties and is bound to affect how the country is governed in the future.

The phenomenon named after the former software entrepreneur and university professor represents widespread disenchantment with politicians and the social and economic establishment that received flak for failing to meet public expectations.

"The sentiment was not necessarily centered solely on the popularity of Ahn, but what he represented and this has transcended traditional political boundaries," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. He said what Ahn represented has been recognized as something that needs to be addressed by all politicians.

President-elect Park and opposition contender Moon Jae-in said they shared many of Ahn's reform views and promised to push forward the kind of change proposed by the 50-year-old political novice.

Other signs that political leaders have realized they need to change can be seen in all political leaders and parties calling for national unity and pledging to distance themselves from past practices of splitting up the country along ideological, regional, demographic and class lines.

Park said she will keep her promise of respecting the wishes of the people and focus on "bread-and-butter" issues when she becomes president in late February, while Moon asked the president-elect in Wednesday's concession speech to strive for national unity and co-prosperity.

"The changes being proposed to reflect public demand are very similar," said Saenuri senior adviser and former Incheon Mayor Ahn Sang-soo. He said this year's election has been a "wake-up call" to politicians.

During the race, both candidates pledged to focus on ordinary people and improve communication with the public. Incumbent President Lee Myung-bak has been criticized for being closed-minded and not listening to what people are saying.

The newly elected president said she will appoint people to key posts regardless of their background, gender or age, as part of her first step to mend old wounds and strife.

On the need to show the people that political leaders were serious about change, Park emphasized during the campaign that she would make "responsible changes." She also pointed out that by becoming the country's first female president, she can help the cause of equal opportunity and raise the ceiling for working women. South Korea has one of the highest levels of gender inequality in the developed world.

Kim Haeng, vice president of social news service Wikitree, said Park may have raised the expectations of women that can lead to greater social participation down the line.

Her DUP rival, on the other hand, claimed he was the only one capable of opening an era of true political reforms.

Besides demands for change, this year's election was noteworthy because all parties argued they could best implement economic democracy and improve welfare.

Despite transforming itself from an economic wreck into Asia's fourth largest economy, South Korea in recent years has had to deal with an increasing wealth disparity, relatively poor welfare coverage and the growing power of conglomerates that dominate all facets of the economy.

Economic democracy broadly calls for limiting the power of large conglomerates through regulatory oversight, assisting the growth of small and medium enterprises, facilitating better distribution of wealth and creating more jobs.

"(Unlike others) Park is committed to pushing forward economic democracy," said Kim Chong-in, a reformist economist who headed the high profile special committee on people's happiness in the Saenuri candidate's election camp.

On political reforms, the presidential race has resulted in the public calling for greater oversight of people in power, and in particular relatives and friends of the president and lawmakers.

Saenuri and the DUP have said they will take steps to distribute the power of the executive office and give up perks and privileges of parliamentarians. They also agreed to examine the feasibility of cutting the number of lawmakers.

Meanwhile, despite the positive side to the public's growing demand for change, there are many critics who said the presidential race showed the backwardness of the country's political system.

JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer Kim Jin, who has been an active commentator about the election, said during a radio talk show that Ahn's presence created a political and media vacuum that blocked out all other pertinent issues.

"It is lamentable that the actions and forecasts of a single independent candidate who quit the race should repeatedly make headlines throughout the election campaign period," he said.

He pointed out candidates only released their top 10 policy directives around two weeks before the election, adding such actions are an embarrassment and should not be repeated in the future.

Meanwhile, independent critics said that despite vows and pledges to the contrary, all political parties engaged in mud-slinging tactics prior to the election. This, they said, is a sign that there is a lot more to do before public demand for change and fair competition have an impact on front-line election managers and party supporters.


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