About an hour ago, the polls closed in Korea’s presidential election, and exit polls showed that Korea’s next president is going to be Lee Myung-bak. The margin varies depending on which network is doing the reporting, but at the moment it appears that Lee garnered about 50% of the votes. Official results will come later, but the bottom line is not going to change.
The purpose of this little note is not to comment on Korean politics, or even to relay breaking news (as we all know, no one comes to Liminality for breaking news), but instead to give my impressions of a Korean presidential election. I guess I was even less interested the last time around, because I was surprised at what I was seeing on the television. While one might expect supporters at campaign headquarters to be rallied for the results, I did not expect to see downtown Seoul flooded with people waving Korean flags and pounding on traditional drums. The last time I saw downtown Seoul like this was during the 2002 World Cup, when people (Hyunjin and I among them) took to the streets in red to watch the matches on huge screens set up around the city center.
The announcement of the results was also much different from what I’m used to in U.S. elections. In the United States, polls close at different times in each state, so what you end up with is an evening of sitting in front of the television and watching as the map fills up with blue and red, and pundits make their predictions and discuss possible outcomes. The winner may be decided sooner or later in the evening, depending on how close the election is.
Here, though, all the polls close at the same time. I walked into the room a few minutes before six o’clock to find Hyunjin sitting in front of the television. In the upper left corner of the screen was a countdown clock. When it got down to one minute, the clock moved to the center of the screen and grew to almost fill the screen. In the background was a split-screen showing the crowds in Seoul on one side and images of the candidates on the other.
As the clock reached ten seconds, photos of the three frontrunners appeared on the screen with slot machine-like numbers spinning beneath them. When the clock reached zero, the numbers stopped spinning and we could see that Lee Myung-bak had 51.3% of the vote (according to MBC, I think it was). And that was it. No suspense, no back and forth, no threatening individual states with annihilation if they didn’t fall the right way. After the results were announced they proceeded to break down the vote by region, but this was not only predictable, it was extremely anti-climactic. Then the talking heads started their commentary, but at this point who cares? The election has already been decided. We turned off the television a few minutes after six o’clock—there was no reason to watch any longer.
A U.S. election is like the Super Bowl. On Super Bowl Sunday you sit down with a ready supply of drinks and snacks and listen to the pundits give their predictions before opening kickoff. Then the ball is in the air and the battle is underway as the teams march down the field, first one way and then the other. The pundits are still at it, crunching the numbers and letting you know what each team needs to do to win. Sometimes the eventual result is evident long before the game is over, and in those cases the pundits try to think of interesting things to talk about while everyone waits for the inevitable (those who are still sober, that is). But sometimes it’s a close match, and you sit on the edge of your seat for the better part of two hours, waiting to see how it’s going to turn out. When it’s all over you slump back in your seat, promising yourself that you’ll clean up the mess from the party later.
A Korean election is like watching the ball fall in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. If you have even a modicum of sanity, you are safely ensconced in your living room, watching all the nutcases in Times Square freeze amidst the crushing crowds and wondering how much alcohol they must have imbibed for such a thing to become bearable. Then the countdown begins and everyone fills up their champagne glasses. Everyone gets excited about watching a big ball slowly slide down a pole. When the clock clicks down to zero you shout “Happy New Year!” and clink glasses with the person next to you. Then you steal a kiss from the most attractive person in your immediate vicinity. Someone starts singing “Auld Lang Syne,” but mostly everyone ignores him and the song dies an unceremonious death. And that’s it. Those who aren’t already inebriated rush to catch up, but the festivities are pretty much over.
To be honest, I think I prefer the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s the fact that the suspense is drawn out over a much longer period. Maybe it’s being able to see the back and forth struggle. Or maybe it’s just what I’m used to. But the Korean version just seemed too anti-climactic to me. It’s true that I expected Lee to win anyway, but it would have been nice to see the contest in action rather than just get the results dropped on me. But such is the nature of the Korean electoral system, and in truth it might be better to just get it over and done with and move on to more important things.
Anyway, congratulations to Lee Myung-bak. May his presidency be a prosperous one.
(Edit: I should point out that I realize things would not have been nearly as anti-climactic had Lee not won by such a large margin—had the margin been smaller, we would have had to wait for official results to come in, but the process is still quicker than in the U.S., where the polls close at different times.)