Stumping amid the seaweed sellers. S. Korea politician runs grass-roots campaign for legislature
Pusan, South Korea
It was evening in the Tangham market, but the narrow streets were still crowded with shoppers. Naked light bulbs dangled from the vinyl roofs over the stalls, illuminating piles of pressed seaweed and heaps of strawberries. Chung Jey Moon weaved through the market. He stopped carefully at every single shop, at the tiny stalls selling dried squid and the stores stocked with electric appliances. He shook each person's hand, smiled, and chatted a moment. Sometimes he stopped and listened to words of encouragement, or of complaint.
``You must be elected,'' said a spirited vegetable seller. ``But don't forget poor people like us. Don't forget to come back and see us.'' An aide carefully wrote down her name and the location of her stall.
It was late in a long day of campaigning for South Korea's National Assembly. Mr. Chung had risen at 5:30 a.m., breakfasted at 6 with supporters, and then headed to his campaign office for meetings with his staff.
The election was close at hand, and Chung rated his chances as only ``50-50.'' Perhaps, an aide suggested later, he was being a bit too pessimistic. But Chung was not about to stop campaigninghard before the April 26 vote.
Chung Jey Moon is only one of 1,041 candidates vying for office in 224 electoral districts. Another 75 seats in South Korea's legislature will be awarded proportionally to the parties that win more than five seats. Today's election is the first vote since last December, when South Koreans went to the polls in the country's first direct presidential election since 1971.
Chung belongs to the Reunification Democratic Party, Korea's leading opposition group. Pusan is its stronghold, home to party leader and former presidential candidate Kim Young Sam. It has a tradition of tweaking the noses of those in power and of resistance to the Army-dominated regimes that have ruled the country since 1961.
But even the opposition loyalties of Pusan's voters cannot be counted on. Like many Koreans, they have lost enthusiasm since the split within the opposition allowed the ruling party to win a victory in December with less than 37 percent of the vote.
Chung Jey Moon had long been a voice for unity. Now, he said as we rode to his afternoon rally, ``in this election, party counts for less than it used to.''
The appeal of personality works in favor of his main opponent, a pharmacologist named Rhee Shang Hi. Although he is, like Chung, a current assemblyman, Mr. Rhee plays down his ties to the ruling Democratic Justice Party.
Instead he calls himself the candidate of ``Green Life,'' running on a novel platform of environmentalism and local development.
Chung's people charge Rhee's appeal owes more to the expensive vaccinations he is providing for free. ``Would you chose a hepatitis injection or will you support an able, democratic conscience?'' their leaflet asks.
Chung is not without his own advantages. The handsome businessman is the inheritor of a formidable local party machine built by his father, a seven-term assemblyman. The more than 5,000 members are mobilized to distribute brochures and flyers and to persuade their neighbors. Their strength was visible in the crowd at a rally for Chung held that afternoon in a rundown former movie theater, now converted into a roller-skating rink.
For almost three hours, with hardly a rustle, the audience of mostly women listened intently to a string of speakers. Warm-up orators excoriated the ruling party and their candidate as repressive and corrupt, pointing fingers at the arrest of former President Chun Doo Hwan's brother for graft. Even Chung Hae Yong, the candidate's 73-year-old father, got up and delivered a rousing assault on the current government of President Roh Tae Woo and his predecessor, Mr. Chun.
Chung looked slightly uncomfortable with this rhetoric. The former economics professor specialized in foreign affairs in the assembly. He was not elected to his position; his seat was awarded to the party under the system of proportions. His aides complain that he is too much of a gentleman, unwilling to do battle in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
``Our foreign allies have very high expectations for the Korean people to bring back democracy,'' Chung said to the crowd. ``We must meet that expectation.''
He spoke of preparing for the 21st century. But his biggest round of applause came at the end, when he attacked the government for using Pusan tax money for the development of the capital rather than meeting needs back home.
``It's the first time I've heard him speak,'' said housewife Yun Hae Jun. ``They said he is only the son of a rich man but he sounded very unassuming - he is very earnest and honest.''