Lessons from the First Internet Presidency

The important inroads made by the Howard Dean campaign in
raising funds and mobilizing support over the internet, as well as the missteps
which led to the unraveling of his candidacy, are currently the object of
intense scrutiny by groups within the Democratic and Republican parties. They would be well advised to study as
well the rise and current difficulties of the world?s first internet president
– South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun.

Although it would be premature to speak of the rise and fall
of President Roh, he was formally impeached by the South Korean national
assembly yesterday, and effectively removed from office. According to the
Korean Constitution, during an impeachment, which must be reviewed by the
Constitutional Court and could take as long as six months, the Prime Minister
shall serve as acting President. The current Prime Minister is the former mayor of Seoul, Ko Kon.

Roh’s election in December 2002 startled observers not only
around the world but in South Korea itself, where Roh had been considered a long
shot right up until election day. The very fact he was a serious contender
astounded some, given his unconventional political background. The son of a peasant, he never attended
college, spent years as a construction worker, and taught himself law at night
until passing the bar exam. He seemed an unlikely Presidential candidate for an
increasingly internationalized South Korea; he had no administrative experience
to speak of, had rarely traveled outside Korea, and spoke almost no English.

The core of the Roh team is from what the Korean press calls
the “386” generation; in their 30’s when the expression was coined, now many
are in their 40’s; they came of age in the tumultuous 80’s, when South Korea
made the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy; and they were
born in the 60?s, together with the tremendous burst of development and
productivity which has produced one of the economic powerhouses of Asia and
perhaps the most wired nation on earth.

One of the factors which made Roh’s victory possible was the
advanced penetration of information infrastructure in Korea, particularly
broadband internet access. Throughout the country, over 75% of homes are wired
for broadband. And people use it – a recent study found that the average South
Korean internet user spends an amazing 1,340 minutes a month online, compared
with 641 for an American. In addition, there were demographic factors in play;
over 70% of the Korean population is under 40, and grew up with computers. The
target audience for the campaign was the millions of Koreans in their 20’s and

The seed for this successful presidential campaign was an
unofficial on-line fan club (www.nosamo.org),
set up for Roh in 2000 after he LOST his third attempt to be elected to the National
Assembly, the same body which just impeached him. After his presidential candidacy
was ignored by a majority of conventional Korean news media, the banner was
picked up by a variety of small regional newspapers, internet web logs and
alternative news sites like OhmyNews ( www.ohmynews.com), which has been called the world’s most domestically powerful news site. While Chosun Ilbo, Joong-ang Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo were
dismissing Roh as a dangerous leftie, Ohmynews was giving his candidacy and the
rising movement around it blanket coverage. The broadband penetration allowed
them to broadcast unedited streaming video of Roh’s speeches and campaign

In addition, Roh’s Millennium Democratic Party raised
millions and mobilized supporters for huge rallies via a series of web sites
and networked mobile phones. The drama came to a head on the eve of election
day, when a former rival who had endorsed Roh suddenly and unexpectedly
withdrew his support, tipping the balance in favor of conservative candidate
Lee Hoi Chang. On the day of the voting a massive electronic get-out-the-vote mobilization,
advising people of the opposition?s last-ditch move to steal the election,
produced an unprecedented turnout of younger voters which gave the victory to

Since taking office in February 2003 however, Roh has had
anything but smooth sailing. Elected on a promise to root out corruption, he
has seen 12 members of his administration jailed and another dozen indicted. He
has been personally connected to a campaign fundraising scandal and has seen
many of his aides and campaign team go to prison. Dealing with in-house
corruption has severely limited his effectiveness in cleaning up the endemic corruption
in society in general.

Even his wellspring of support in the alternative media has
dried up. AllmyNews withdrew support for the Roh administration last year in protest
to Roh meeting with George Bush. Strangely,
the current incident leading to Roh’s impeachment grew out of an off-hand
comment in a television interview last month which was deemed to be in
violation of South Korea’s strict election laws mandating Presidential neutrality

What lessons can US political campaigns, as well as
politicians among other internet-active electorates, take away from this
post-industrial morality tale? Despite the differences in demographics and
democratic traditions, we feel that there are several:

  • Converting
    eyeballs to action ? It?s not enough to get people to visit a political
    web page.  The key is
    converting their interest to actions; contributing money, attending
    events, organizing networks and lobbying friends.
  • Voting
    day turnout is essential ? An effective personal network uniting
    supporters electronically via computers, PDAs and cell phones can make the
    difference in a close election. Get-out-the-vote efforts are nothing new, but the techniques used
    by the Roh campaign were innovative and effective.
    • Winning
      can be a problem – This is especially a consideration for unconventional
      or “outsider” candidates without a major party endorsement. The skills
      needed to successfully govern a major modern country are quite different
      from those needed to get elected. Pre-election supporters can quickly turn
      into opposition if they disagree with policy decisions of the new
    • Trying
      to do too much too fast ? Moving too fast can unite seemingly incompatible
      political forces against you in alliances which may not last beyond the
      current battles but which can make it difficult or impossible to govern.

    Finally, political planners should approach the internet
    with a note of caution.  While its potential
    to raise money and awareness may be awesome, it can tear a candidate down as
    quickly as it builds him up. In the final analysis, it is no substitute for the
    tried and true tools of political success; a sound and extensive face-to-face organization
    on the ground, a solid support network in the bureaucratic and administrative
    corridors of power, and the ability to seek consensus and compromise among
    traditional power centers rather than forcing them into the opposition.