Charismatic Politics of Another Sort: Personality Politics in South Korea

By | May 04, 2013 | No Comments

Ahn Choel-soo: a charismatic leader of another sort. | Image: Wikipedia

Ahn Choel-soo: a charismatic leader of another sort. | Image: Wikipedia

The need for institutionalized political parties as a medium through which citizens can channel their aggregated grievances is considered fundamental to the democratic process. In institutionalized parties, politicians and members of political parties, taking cues from their constituents, will respond by altering the economic, political, or social order through the policymaking process. Called “vertical accountability” by some, Leonardo Molino describes it as “the obligation of elected political leaders to answer for their political decisions when asked by voters or constitutional bodies.” Furthermore, institutionalized parties, running on “programmatic platforms” with clearly identifiable policy preferences, also encourage policy continuity. Predictability encourages consistency because the electorate know what to expect. This has ramifications for anything that requires more than a single term to work itself out, e.g. North Korea policy.

From this point of view, South Korea can be understood as an unconsolidated democracy. It does not have fully institutionalized, differentiated political parties that run on clearly delineated policy platforms. Instead, it is dominated by personality politics and, as I’ve argued before, “personality politics stifle Korean democracy.” In a sense, South Korea, like the North, has succeeded in “routinizing charisma,” though in a “democratic” way distinct and very different from North Korea.

The latest, and clearest, manifestation of charismatic politics in South Korea was seen when  creator of AhnLab (anti-virus software) and immensely popular public figure Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수) bypassed the party vetting process for the Democratic United Party (DUP; 통합민주당), which had already elected Moon Jae-in (문재인) as its candidate, and decided, after a considerable delay, to enter the race as an independent. Though Ahn eventually backed out, letting Moon run as the candidate representing the party that had already vetted him, significant “institutional damage” had already been wrought: the head of the Democratic United Party, Lee Hae-chan was among those who resigned, apparently in response to demands from Ahn that the party reform itself (a party Ahn wasn’t – and still isn’t – a member of). Ahn has now been elected to the National Assembly, representing Nowon District (노원구) in northern Seoul, though he has yet to join a party.

If recent media coverage and polling conducted by the Korea Society Opinion Institute (KSOI; 한국사회여론연구소) is reflective of the future of politics, then Korea’s democracy is likely to remain unconsolidated and held captive to the charisma of personalities, especially Ahn’s.

Results from the KSOI survey, released on April 28, show that more than 50% of the respondents, when asked to choose whether Ahn should join the the opposition party (DUP) or form his own, responded that he “has to form a new party” [새로운 정당을 창당해야 한다]; whereas only 23.4% said he has to join the Democratic Party (DP)* [민주당에 입당해야 한다]. Support for a new party, under Ahn, was highest in Daegu (대구) at 62.7%. Seoul came in just below 60%. The only region to respond different from the national trend was Honam (호남), the region that has overwhelmingly supported all progressive political parties (Honam is Kim Dae-jung country).

It is worth pointing out that the high percentage of those favoring the creation of a new Ahn-centered party is driven by a relative distrust of the DUP (whether distrust increased because of the institutional damage created by Ahn’s late entry or because people actually believe the the DP needs to be reformed makes for an interesting study in correlation). Moreover, given the progressive party’s amorphous nature, many people are likely to think little of another party being created; it’s just another progressive party.

The phenomenon of political parties changing their form, leadership, and sometimes name for the sake of an individual leader is an indication of a political system without institutionalized political parties. That most people believe Ahn Cheol-soo has to create a new party indicates that political parties, especially the progressive party, have neither institutional form, nor, arguably, the public belief that they are about to adopt one.

*Shortly following the election, the Democratic United Party (DUP; 통합민주당) was renamed the Democratic Party (DP; 민주당); it is the same party under a new name. Rebranding parties under new names is a common phenomenon in South Korea.

Blog by: Steven Denney

No Comments

  1. Could you make the case that 민주당’s rise came about because of the strong popularity of Kim Dae-Jung?

  2. The shadow of Kim Dae-jung’s legacy is long and his popularity ever-lasting amongst progressives (especially those in 전라도). DJ is responsible for many a 민주당 (the many manifestations of progressive parties in South Korea).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.