Shaken by a corruption scandal that involves its President, South Korea might elect its own ‘Donald Trump’ in an overwhelming voter dissatisfaction with inequality, inefficiency and nepotism prominent in the nation’s social reality.
In the aftermath of Brexit in the UK, the likely election of a right-wing candidate for President of Austria, and the stunning ascent of Donald Trump to power in the US, a pivot to the political right is becoming a global phenomenon. Voter dissatisfaction with career politicians and the lack of transparency in the highest echelons of state governance has reached South Korea, where the recent corruption scandal involving the acting President Park Geun-hye has propelled the ‘Korean Trump’ higher in opinion polling roughly one year ahead of the presidential election.
Lee Jae-myung, mayor of a town in the vicinity of Korea’s capital, Seoul, has attracted favorable feedback from voters recently. Notable for his Trump-style rhetoric, and compared by many observers to Bernie Sanders, the North American ‘revolutionary’ firmly anchored in the radical anti-globalist left, Lee Jae-myung is aiming to be elected into office next year. His agenda includes the dramatic decrease of South Korea’s exposure to transnational corporations, rapprochement with North Korea, and putting acting president Park in prison over the corruption allegations.
Lee’s populist agenda draws the most extreme proposals from the right and the left wings of the political spectrum in its European understanding. South Korea, mired in nepotism, a regional clan system, corruption, brutal corporate governance, and lack of jobs, is looking at the ‘maverick outcast’ of its national politics with a renewed hope to reshuffle the entire political landscape in order to promote the efficiency in the nation’s state and corporate governance. “Americans impeached their establishment by electing Trump,” the 52-year-old mayor of Seongnam said earlier this week. “Our own elections will mirror that.”
Recently, South Korea has witnessed massive street protests over the corruption scandal and the fact that President Park cannot be held accountable for the sweeping mismanagement due to the provisions of the nation’s law. The street rallies have been the largest since the 1980s, and President Park’s approval rating has tanked to a dismal 4 percent. Korean voters have expressed their anger over the interconnectedness of the nation’s big business, the government, and international corporations – an issue Lee is aiming to resolve.
“Lee’s fast rise does seem to suggest that his supporters are sick of business as usual in the Blue House,” Steven Ward of Chosun University said. “Voter discontent with the establishment very well might be high enough to propel a populist into office on the protest vote, and Lee could be that person.”
Street protesters are demanding President Park’s resignation from the office, and Lee is projected to lead a united front against her.
“Those lawmakers who are responsible for and worry about the future of the country and lives of the people will make efforts together to find ways to normalize the collapse of the government,” Kim Kyung-rok, spokesman for the People’s Party, said.
Lee is a member of the center/center-left Minjoo Party of Korea (the Democratic Party). He has been mayor of Seongnam since 2010, and earlier this year, his party’s interim leader Kim Chong-in named Lee as a potential candidate for the 2017 presidential election.
According to opinion polls, Lee is currently the third most popular prospective candidate for South Korea’s presidency, behind United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Moon Jae-in, who lost the election to Park in 2012. However, neither Ban nor Moon have expressed an intent to run for presidency, whilst Lee has already stated he would run for office. Lee and Moon are from the same political party, meaning they would have to compete for party nomination, should Moon decide to announce his candidacy.
Lee is a career lawyer from a working-class background. Despite this significant difference from Trump, Lee’s recent activities are very similar in style and methods to those employed by Trump’s team to win over the hearts and minds of Americans. Like Trump, Lee is reliant on social media, rather than mainstream publications and broadcasters, for bringing his message across to the voters. One of Trump’s merits is having built a successful corporation, whilst Lee’s achievements include the economic prosperity in the city of Seongnam under his rule – the city generates high tax revenues and is host to innovative tech enterprises.
Lee’s revolutionary proposals include curbing income inequality and reshuffling the nation’s establishment – ‘Korea’s Trump’ even quoted the infamous Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte saying he would get rid of the ‘establishment cartel’ once elected into office. Lee has also promised to dismantle the clan system known as chaebol, and raise welfare benefits for the workers. Lee has also reiterated that South Korea’s economic growth is slowing due to the rising inefficiency stemming from the dominance of chaebol in corporate and state governance.
Park has not expressed any intention to resign over the corruption scandal, as the presidency is her chance to avoid possible criminal prosecution. However, the nation’s parliament is coordinating action to impeach her. Subsequently, ‘Korea’s Trump’ might take office sooner than Park’s single five-year presidential term expires some 15 months from now.
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