Author: Martin Weiser, Seoul
South Korea’s presidential election on 9 March 2022 was decided by the closest margin in the country’s history. Just a quarter of a million people — or 0.73 per cent of all voters — decided the election by casting their votes for the conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol. The centre-left candidate Lee Jae-myung came in second with 47.4 per cent of the vote, while third place went to progressive candidate Sim Sang-jung with 2.4 per cent.
With such a small margin, potentially dozens of reasons can be found to explain why Lee’s Democratic Party was not able to win. Lee could have better targeted certain groups like young male voters that mostly voted for Yoon, drawn older female voters away from the anti-feminist conservative candidate, or dispelled fears of additional taxation from home owners. He could have tried harder to capture voters in traditionally conservative strongholds in the south-east and mobilised even more supporters in his party’s south-west stronghold.
But the election results do make one factor behind Lee’s defeat clear — the failure to form a progressive alliance or, at least, to have competitors on the left drop out of the race. While Yoon could bring IT multi-millionaire Ahn Cheol-soo to join his camp, possibly increasing his appeal to centrist voters, there was no similar move on the left.
Lee was successful in having the former Moon Jae-in administration’s finance and economy minister Kim Dong-yeon withdraw his candidacy, but Sim vowed even months before the election not to withdraw. While this could have been misunderstood to refer only to her insistence on participating in TV debates and giving a voice to progressives, she stayed in the race until the very end, inevitably cutting into the votes of the Democratic Party.
Her voters were clearly aware that they wasted their vote on her and many may have done so as a form of protest. Among the top contenders, she was the only female candidate and was not tainted by any scandals, unlike Lee and Yoon. Without her running, these voters might not have voted at all. But it also seems like a reasonable assumption that even a third of her voters might have switched to Lee and secured his win if Sim had decided to withdraw from the race.
An open agreement between Lee and Sim to campaign together might have backfired and scared off centrist voters, but even behind-the-scenes agreements or a simple mutual understanding apparently could not be reached. Sim could have withdrawn her candidacy herself and appealed to her supporters to support Lee. She clearly could not have favoured an anti-feminist president that wants to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, talks of ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against North Korea, and plans to roll back progressive policies of higher taxes, welfare and nuclear phaseout.
None of the people involved have publicly talked about this failure to work together, leaving us with two possible avenues of speculation. Sim may have turned her party into one that is unable to compromise and engage in political deals. She initially might have felt emboldened by the two million votes she received in the 2017 presidential election or by the 10 per cent of the party vote that her party received during the 2020 parliamentary election. But any hope of repeating these successes must have quickly evaporated amid staggeringly low poll results, underlined by her five-day hiatus from campaigning in mid-January.
But there also might exist strong mistrust or animosity between the two parties. An electoral reform adopted in 2019 was designed to specifically compensate smaller parties, but eventually was abused first by the People Power Party and then by Lee’s Democratic Party. Thirty seats in the 300 member legislature elected in 2020 would have been awarded mostly to smaller parties that received a higher share of proportional votes than their vote share in constituencies. But since the larger parties had created satellite parties that did not compete in constituencies, those paper parties also took the majority of the compensatory seats.
Symbolically, Sim’s insistence on staying in the race underlined her commitment to move South Korea away from the two-party system. But by helping the conservative candidate win the presidency she undermined her goal of doing so. The conservative party has strongly benefited from the mostly majoritarian electoral system and in 2019 even attempted to use violence to prevent changes towards a more proportional system.
Reforming the electoral system will not become easier under Yoon. It is possible that his party will pressure him to veto electoral reform bills, and even more likely that he will set reform on a different path. Sim’s decision to remain in the presidential race has inadvertently set back the goals of South Korea’s progressives, who will struggle to navigate a Yoon presidency and push reform.
Martin Weiser is an independent researcher based in Seoul.
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