South Korea’s presidential litmus test

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Author: Kim Kee-seok, Kangwon National University

In 2022, two political challenges lie ahead for the ruling Moon Jae-in administration and the Democratic Party of Korea — the nation’s 20th presidential election on 9 March and the 8th local elections on 1 June.

South Korea’s current political landscape is unprecedented in its modern history. The progressives have control over all levels of government, including the Blue House, National Assembly and a majority of local governments and councils. This is the first time since the founding of the Republic of Korea that the progressives have seized all institutional political power.

The notable achievements of the progressives have been matched by the fatal failures of the conservatives. The candlelight protests and subsequent impeachment of the conservative Park Geun-hye government in 2016 were extraordinary developments that strengthened South Korea’s democracy and left conservatives flailing. Without putting forth a meaningful challenge, the conservatives have in recent years lost the presidential (2017), local (2018) and parliamentary elections (2020).

During this overhaul of the political landscape, South Korea responded successfully to the COVID-19 crisis and made major strides in its democracy, economy, diplomacy, security and culture. The prefix of K- to different items — K-quarantine, K-drama, K-pop, K-cosmetics, K-food and even K-defence — demonstrates South Korea’s growing brand power and re-enforces its international status as an advanced country with both hard and soft power.

But these achievements did not generate domestic political rewards for the incumbent government. Instead, in 2021, a headwind of regime change blew fiercely in South Korea. In Seoul and Busan’s April by-elections, ruling party candidates lost to nominees from the conservative People Power Party by a wide margin.

South Korean voters, particularly younger ones, voted conservative mayors into office and sent a strong warning to the ruling party for failing to deal with the country’s fragile socio-economic structure. In response, the conservative party elected 36-year-old Lee Jun-seok as the youngest leader in party history.

South Korean voters’ evaluation of President Moon’s performance has been ambivalent, as strong support for Moon and high aspirations for regime change go hand in hand. On the one hand, the approval rate for Moon, who will remain in office for only three more months, is still above 40 per cent – the highest approval rating at this stage for any democratically elected president in Korean history. But more than half of voters still prefer regime change, driven particularly by polarised constituents on socio-economic issues.

The two major parties elected their presidential candidates in the fall of 2021 and a tough race to the Blue House is taking shape.

Lee Jae-myung, the ruling party candidate, served as mayor of Seongnam City and governor of Gyeonggi Province and is running a campaign based on the popularity gained from several tangible policy outcomes. These policy achievements include implementing welfare benefits and subsidies for young and poor people without causing heavy financial burdens and successfully executing public order despite strong private challenges.

Yoon Suk-yeol, who was prosecutor general under President Moon, became the opposition candidate after clashing with the Moon administration over prosecutorial reform.

At the turn of the year, polls showed that Yoon’s lack of political experience had started to undermine his appeal as a fresh and just political figure. As an experienced and merit-based candidate, Lee has gradually caught up to him in the polls. As such, predicting the victor in this election is still particularly difficult. The number of undecided voters remains large enough to change the outcome on election day.

The South Korean electoral system, in which the five-year term of the presidency overlaps with the four-year terms of legislators and local council members, creates various combinations in election cycles. Such dynamism lowers the predictability of the political processes and electoral outcomes.

The impeachment of Park Geun-hye also disrupted the presidential election cycle by bringing forward the scheduled date from December to March 2022. As a result, local elections will be held only 80 days after the presidential election. There is no historical precedent or empirical data to illustrate how such a combination of two elections may affect political calculations and shape electoral outcomes.

Given the power distributions of South Korean politics, it is likely that a Lee Jae-myung victory will stimulate voters’ high demands for various reforms through strong executive power combined with an overwhelming parliamentary majority. Yoon Suk-yeol’s election would result in a split government, requiring delicate skills of political compromise for any legislation of which he is devoid. But neither result will allow stable or predictable political processes. Dynamism will be a key word for South Korean politics in 2022.

Kim Kee-seok is Professor of Comparative Politics at the Department of Political Science, Kangwon National University.


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