South Korea 2012

Legislative elections were held in South Korea (Republic of Korea) on April 11, 2012. All 300 seats in South Korea’s unicameral National Assembly were up for reelection. 246 members are elected by first past the post in single-member districts, while the remaining 54 ‘block seats’ are elected on a separate ballot through proportional representation. South Korea is a presidential system, where the executive is not responsible to the legislature, but as in any presidential system, a loss of control in the National Assembly can hamper a president. This particular election is widely seen as an indicator for the presidential election, due in December 2012.

South Korea’s contemporary politics are heavily influenced by two factors rooted in the country’s recent political history: military rule and regionalism. Between 1962 and 1992, South Korea was ruled by the military, and alternated between authoritarian periods and semi-democratic openings. Between 1962 and 1979, under the presidency of Park Chung-hee, South Korea experienced a period of rapid economic growth which transformed the poor country into an advanced industrialized economy. In this period, South Korea’s economic structure began being marked by the chaebol structures – large industrial conglomerates which ran the country’s economy through a close alliance with the state. The rapid economic development of the country thanks to Korean state capitalism remains Park’s main achievement, but he remains a very controversial figure in Korea because of his authoritarianism. Economic development, indeed, went hand-in-hand with draconian repression of the opposition (students, intellectuals and unionized labour) and an authoritarian political system rigged in favour of Park’s party and the military. At the same time, Park’s regime laid the foundations of regionalism in South Korean politics, which is one of the most surprising aspects of politics in a fairly homogeneous country. Park, a native of Gyeongsang province (Daegu and Busan), led policies which heavily favoured his native province over Jeolla, native province of his top political rival Kim Dae-jung and historically sidelined by political elites. A wave of opposition and the risk of losing Washington’s crucial political support led Park’s secret services, the KCIA, to turn against him and assassinate him.

Out of the chaos which followed Park’s death, another military officer from Gyeongsang, Chun Doo-hwan, seized power. Chun quickly asserted his power by setting up his own dictatorial regime, arresting opponents and bloodily putting down a revolt in Gwangju (Jeolla). With the backing of US President Ronald Reagan, the country’s economy continued to grow at a rapid pace during the 1980s, but opposition movements gained strength, to which Chun responded by an eclectic policy of political reforms mixed in with good ole repression. In 1987, Chun and his handpicked successor – another military officer from Gyeongsang, Roh Tae-woo, were forced to agree to the direct election of the President in 1987. That year, Roh, the candidate of Chun’s incumbent right-wing Democratic Justice Party, was elected president over an opposition divided between Busan native Kim Young San and Jeolla native Kim Dae-jung. Roh’s administration slowly democratized the system, but with the unfortunate backdrop of corruption, regional discrimination, economic decline and associated labour unrest. Prior to the 1992 election, Kim Young Sam had merged his party with Roh’s party, and had in the process managed to take control of the party to run against Kim Dae-jung in the 1992 election, which was disturbed the emergence of a populist centrist force led by Hyundai patriarch Chung Ju-yung. Kim Young Sam defeated the other Kim in the 1992 election, with the results revealing – once again – a deep regional divide between Jeolla and Gyeongsang.

Kim Young Sam’s presidency, disturbed at the end by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, marked the end of military rule in the country. Kim Young Sam proved to be the Trojan Horse who took control of the military-led Korean right to destroy it from within, which he did through the arrest and conviction of both of his predecessors in an ambitious and ultimately successful anti-corruption campaign. However, the economic crisis in Korea in 1997 hurt his party – now styled the Grand National Party (GNP) – in the 1997 elections which were narrowly won by Kim Dae-jung.

Kim Dae-jung, who became the first “liberal” president of the country – the opposition to the Korean right/military has largely been styled as liberal (which means slightly different things in Korea) – had a succesful presidency marked by economic growth, economic reforms aimed at breaking the chaebols power and a new policy of détente with North Korea (the Sunshine Policy). In 2002, he was succeeded by Roh Moo-hyun, whose presidency might be one of the most controversial in South Korea’s post-military history. The GNP led a futile charge for his impeachment in 2004 while backfired on them, while his economic policies in a period of less impressive economic numbers and growth attracted criticism. He also faced allegations of corruption (which led to his party’s collapse and later his own suicide in 2009) and incompetence.

Roh was succeeded by another controversial figure, Lee Myung-bak, the GNP candidate who won the 2007 election by a landslide over a discredited and unpopular liberal government. Already in hot water before his election for involvement in a scam by an investment house, Lee has been a polarizing figure. His opponents decry his authoritarian style, his economic policies which they claim are too favourable to big business and the chaebols, as well as a controversial free trade agreement with the United States. Lee has also led a more stridently pro-American foreign policy, and has shifted gears in relations with the North by adopting a more confrontational posture than the controversial Sunshine Policy of past liberal government. Lee had also struggled with a divided right – in 2007, he faced a dissident candidacy by former two-time GNP presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang who founded his own party, the Liberty Forward Party (LFP) – but also a divided party. Lee’s loyalists have battled with members closer to Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, herself defeated by Lee in the 2007 GNP primaries.

The last legislative elections, held in 2008, right after Lee’s election, resulted in a decisive right-wing victory, with the GNP holding an absolute majority on its own, complemented by 14 pro-Park right-wingers and 18 LFP MPs. The liberal opposition, divided and discredited, won only 84 seats in all, the bulk of them held by the United Democratic Party which became the Democratic Party in 2008 before changing names, again, to become the Democratic United Party (DUP) in 2011. The GNP also changed names in 2012, becoming the Saenuri Party.

Both parties have failed to prove popular with voters. The right is hurt by the unpopularity of some of Lee’s economic and trade policies, while the DUP has leadership troubles of its own (pro-Roh and anti-Roh factions). Above all, however, both parties have needed to go in damage control over the course of the campaign. The DUP was hit by a viral YouTube video in which one of its candidates talked about a terrorist attack on the United States and about sending out serial killers to sexually assault then-US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice but also suggested that the serial killer should attack then-President Bush and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The DUP called on its candidate to step down, which he has refused to do. Following that scandal, Lee’s office was hit by a memory stick which included details about a government surveillance operation including phone-tapping and spying on journalists, activists and opposition leaders. The Saenuri Party, which is now led by Park, distanced itself from the President, while the administration has responded by claiming that 80% of the surveillance cases were carried out under Roh’s administration, forcing the DUP to go on damage control.

Otherwise, domestic issues rather than foreign policy were key issues in this election. As mentioned above, Lee’s policies have been decried by opponents as being too pro-business. He has been unable to live up to his “747” economic promise (7% growth, per capita income of $40,000, 7th economy in the world). Instead, hit a bit by the economic crisis, the country has had slower growth (3.5%) and rising inflation (3%) and unemployment (4%). Voters are concerned by welfare programs and social services, which have forced both parties to tack a bit to the left. The controversial FTA with the US, which faces domestic opposition from farmers’ movements, has also been a key issue. The DUP promised to renegotiate the FTA.

In terms of party politics, the right remains somewhat divided between the Saenuri Party and Lee Hoi-chang’s LFP, which has however been fairly marginalized. A new conservative party, the K Party, proved unable to make a mark. On the left, the DUP is the dominant party. But the liberal DUP still faces a rival to its left, the new United Progressive Party (UPP) formed, largely, by the old left-nationalist Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The DUP and UPP have formed a shaky alliance, which has been hurt by irregularities in a UPP primary.

Turnout was 54.3%, up from the all-time low of 46% in 2008. The results were:

Constituency votes

Saenuri 43.28% (-3.87%) winning 127 seats (-10)
DUP 37.85% (+8.93%) winning 106 seats (+40)
Independents 9.35% (-1.73%) winning 3 seats (-22)
UPP 5.99% (+2.6%) winning 7 seats (+5)
LFP 2.2% (-3.52%) winning 5 seats (-11)
NPP 0.47% (-0.86%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.86% (-1.54%) winning 0 seats (-1)

Block votes

Saenuri 42.80% (-7.86%) winning 25 seats (-5)
DUP 36.46% (+11.29%) winning 21 seats (+6)
UPP 10.31% (+4.63%) winning 6 seats (+3)
LFP 3.23% (-3.61%) winning 2 seats (-2)
Christian Agape Party 1.21% (+1.21%) winning 0 seats (nc)
NPP 1.14% (-1.8%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 4.85% (-3.78%) winning 0 seats (-2)

Total National Assembly

Saenuri winning 152 seats (-5)
DUP winning 127 seats (+46)
UPP winning 13 seats (+8)
LFP winning 5 seats (-13)
Independents winning 3 seats (-22)

Results by constituency (source: Wikipedia)

To the surprise of many observers, the Saenuri Party maintained a thin absolute majority in South Korea’s legislature. This victory is interpreted as a major boost for the party going into the December elections. Although the party was set to suffer and did suffer a bit from President Lee’s unpopularity, the party led a good campaign and managed to distance itself – perhaps because the party’s leader is Park – from the Blue House (the president’s residence) and prevent the DUP from turning the contest into a referendum over Lee. While the saber-rattling in North Korea this week may have influenced some voters, international issues did not really play a role in this campaign.

The DUP made significant gains, but it ultimately fell far short of knocking off the ruling party. A defeat for the ruling party would have given the opposition a significant boost for the presidential election, and allowed it to block Lee’s agenda and notably stall issues such as the FTA. The DUP apologized to its supporters for disappointing them. The DUP lost steam during the campaign, hurt by poor candidate choices and the YouTube video of one of its candidate. It failed to cash in on any anti-government backlash the memory stick scandal may have wrought. The opposition is in a much stronger state than it was after its 2008 rout, but it is definitely the underdog for the presidential race in December.

Regionalism was once again very apparent in the results. The right was shut out of Jeolla (Gwangju city and Jeollabuk and Jeollanam provinces), where the DUP remained the dominant party. On the other hand, with only a handful of exceptions, the right swept Gyeongsang (Gyeongsangbuk and Gyeongsangnam provinces, cities of Busan, Ulsan and Daegu) but also northern Gangwon province. On the other hand, the DUP regained dominance in Seoul – where it has traditionally been fairly strong – and in the fairly working-class suburban hinterland of Seoul in Gyeonggi province. Independents, which in 2008 – for some reason – had won a lot of seats in Gyeongsang province, were all swept out besides three – including two survivors in Jeolla. The two parties split fairly equally in the swing  Chungcheong region, where the LFP had been dominant in 2008 but which has now been reduced to a tiny rump of three members.

This election has been said to foreshadow the more high-profile presidential contest in December. President Lee is term-limited. The presumptive Saenuri Party nominee and early frontrunner is the party’s leader, Park Geun-hye. Park is a competent and apt politician, and she has managed to distance herself from the Blue House. Credited with her party’s victory in the legislative elections, she is unlikely to face tough internal competition and enters the presidential contest as the favourite. The opposition frontrunner, for the DUP, is Moon Jae-in. Moon is a Roh loyalist – he was the former president’s chief of staff. He easily won a seat in traditionally conservative Busan in this election. The presidential contest, however, will not be fought on the same lines as the legislative election. Moon has thus far not been able to seriously rival Park, and there is a chance that the opposition vote will be split by the potential candidacy of an independent, former businessman Ahn Cheol-soo. Ahn’s political future received a boost when the independent candidate he endorsed won the Seoul mayoral by-election last year, defeating the GNP’s candidate (Lee had been mayor of Seoul before becoming president, making it a high-profile defeat for his party).

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Posted on April 12, 2012, in South Korea. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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