Her presidential campaign rallies present blaring pop music and dancing supporters, but Park Geun-hye’s campaign involves managing some tricky legacies.
Her father, Park Chung-hee, was a military dictator who ran the country from the time he carried out a 1961 military coup until his assassination in 1979. His memory still stirs mixed emotions among South Koreans.
In September, the daughter publicly apologized for her father’s suppression of democracy. Then again, some older Koreans remember Park fondly for his role in transforming their war-torn, impoverished country into the world’s 11th largest economy.
Park Geun-hye’s spokesperson Cho Yoon-sun explains the Park family legacy.
“She will take all those pains that her father’s regime left, and she will give all those gifts and all those contributions to the people that were made by her father,” Cho says.
Cho points out Park’s record as a five-term lawmaker and leader of the New Frontier Party. The party changed its name this year to distance it from the unpopular legacy of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak and steer it toward the political center.
Park, 60, who would be the country’s first female president, has promised a raft of benefits for women, in order to get them into the workforce and keep them there. She is no feminist, nor has she ever married or had children. Seoul National University law professor Eom Ho Keon, who is attending a Park rally, says this gives her a certain advantage.
“In the past, there have been a lot of family corruption scandals, with leaders trying to amass fortunes to pass on to their descendants,” Eom says. “Ms. Park has no financial ambitions, and no offspring to give her money to. She only wants to work for the people.”
Liberal Opponent Challenges Corporate Power
The latest polls show Park with a slim lead over her liberal rival Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer who was the chief of staff for the left-leaning President Roh Moo-hyun, who served from 2003-2008.
Moon was jailed in the 1970s for protesting the rule of Park’s father.
At a recent campaign rally, Moon assailed the ruling party as an extension of the chaebol, the family-owned conglomerates, which include Hyundai and Samsung. Critics say they have reaped most of the spoils of Korea’s economic growth.
“Is this a government that prioritizes conglomerates and corporate profits, or a government of the people? Is this a government that puts its own power first, or puts people first?” Moon says.
Seoul National University political scientist Kang Won-taek says that this election is the first in 25 years in which there are only two major contenders to choose from, Park on the right and Moon on the left.
“This is not only a competition between two candidates, but also it’s a showdown between two ideological blocks. So ideological tendencies matter more,” Kang says.
Policies seem to matter less, Kang says, because the two candidates’ prescriptions are so similar. Both advocate greater welfare spending, which is low compared with other developed economies. Both say they will pursue policies of engagement with North Korea, avoiding all-out confrontation or appeasement.
Kang says the lack of a third party and independent candidates is frustrating for voters who want an alternative.
“It’s a sort of political and electoral cartel between the two major parties,” Kang says. “And that’s why many people are sick and tired of these current political and party systems.”