Four months ago South Korea's political future looked bright with promise. President Chun Doo Hwan's regime had been shocked into making major concessions after nationwide protests had dramatized the extent of middle-class opposition to its policies. Chun had agreed to allow the country's first direct presidential election in 16 years. Opposition leaders had promised to unite behind a single candidate to oppose Roh Tae Woo, Chun's handpicked choice as presidential candidate of the ruling party. The first peaceful transfer of power in the nation's history appeared to be on the edge of achievement.
What loomed, in short, was the prospect of a more or less fair popular election that almost certainly would see an opponent of authoritarian rule elected president, opening the way for more humane and socially responsible domestic policies. All this can still happen. But it is no longer the virtual sure-thing that it once appeared.
A major problem is that opposition leaders have failed to maintain their alliance by agreeing that only one of them would seek the presidency. Kim Dae Jung, who once promised not to be a candidate if a direct presidential election was permitted, is now running hard for president under the banner of his new party. Kim Young Sam, a more moderate opposition leader, has refused to leave the race. Unless one of them gives way the Dec. 16 balloting will see the anti-government vote divided, greatly aiding Roh's chances. There are some in Korea who say that this was what Chun and Roh envisaged all along. The real blame, though, must fall on those politicians who put personal ambition ahead of national political benefit.
The ruling party, to be sure, isn't counting on a split opposition alone to secure its victory. With its control of national television the regime is making sure that Roh gets full political exposure while his opponents are largely ignored. Using its leverage with the businesses that have benefited so greatly from South Korea's economic miracle, the ruling party has also amassed a campaign chest many times larger than that of its opponents.
Meanwhile, the campaign has brought out and exacerbated ancient regional animosities and revived grievances dating back to the Korean War.
What is shaping up is an election whose winner is likely to be chosen by only a minority of voters and whose victory, fairly or not, almost surely will prompt claims of fraud or intimidation.
South Korea could yet have a peaceful transfer of power next February. But there is no assurance that things will stay peaceful after that.