S. Korean presidential election not exactly a cliffhanger
Seoul — "Chun will win, it's all planned," said one woman, a schoolteacher, adding the inevitable "but don't mention my name, I don't like to talk about politics."
Her thoughts were echoed by a young executive, just out of college, who said "I think Chun doo Hwan will be elected president for sure. The script was written several months ago. I'm not going to vote, I'd rather stay in the office and work."
Even the cleaning woman cautiously volunteered, "People say that man Chun will win. I think so."
Although over 20 million South Koreans will indirectly vote for a new president within a few days and will go the polls again next month to choose a new legislature, there is a curious lack of the sort of speculation that normally precedes elections.
A public-opinion poll would be superfluous. Most South Koreans consider the election results a foregone conclusion -- a walkover for President Chun Doo Hwan and the party he leads, the Democratic justice Party (DJP).
A senior foreign diplomat reckoned that even by the early months of 1980, before Chun took over the Korean Central Intelligence Agency(KCIA) in April, it was clear that he would fill the power vacuum caused by the October 1979 assassination of President Park Chung Hee.
The first stage of the president elections will be the vote for a 5,278 -member electoral college Feb. 11. DJP members are known to hold an absolute majority. The main business companies are also well represented.
The electoral college will elect a new president for a seven-year term on Feb. 25. In addition to the DJP, three other of the 16 newly formed political parties are putting up presidential candidates -- presumably more in the hope of gaining prestige than of actually winning the presidency.
The Korea National Party, which was organized by members of the former pro-government Democratic Republican Party and other supporters of the late President Park, is expected to follow the government line and not oppose the DJP on major issues. The main opposition will be the Democratic Korean Party (DKP), which includes members of the former opposition New Democratic Party who are still allowed to engage in politics. (More than 500 politicians are banned from all political activity for the next eight years.) The Civil Rights Party is another small opposition party. But the DJP, with former Army strong man Chun at its helm, is the clear favorite.
President Chun's rise to power from relative obscurity in the past year has been spectacular. His first moves were behind the scenes, purging first the Army, then the KCIA. Following the May student riots and the uprising in the southern town of Kwangju, he stepped into the limelight. His purges were extended to the civil service, the media, and to political and business circles. Thousands lost their jobs, many were sent to "re-education" camps.
Leading dissident Kim Dae Jung and others charged with engineering the Kwangju incident were sentenced to death, and heavy prison sentences were handed out to codefendants standing trial with kim on lesser charges. Chun established himself as a man to be reckoned with, to be obeyed and feared.
After he assumed the presidency and gradually restored domestic stability, a campaign to modify Chun's strongman image was mounted. He appeared day after day on the front page of local newspapers, chatting to newspaper boys, workers, and old people, and all but kissing babies. He showed himself to be just by bringing forward elections and keeping his promise to lift martial law. And he showed himself to be merciful by commuting Kim Dae Jung's death sentence to life imprisonment and by reducing the prison sentences of other dissidents.
Chun's visit to the United States at the invitation of President Reagan, and Reagan's promises to maintain US defense aid for South Korea, provide a useful last-minute pre-election boost to Chun's prestige as a politician and statesman. Equally important, the South Korean economy is, according to government forecasts, beginning to move out of a two-year recession.
For the South Korean electorate, his image seems complete and his message is clear. The good life is available -- for those who toe the Chun Doo Hwan line.