Last month’s by-elections in South Korea signaled a possible shift in the country’s political landscape. The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) suffered serious losses as South Korean voters turned against the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. So, do these latest polls herald a return to a less elitist public policy?
Four major races took place on April 27. In Bundang, one of Seoul’s wealthiest suburbs and a traditional GNP stronghold, the ruling party candidate was ousted by potential presidential candidate and Democratic Party member Sohn Hak-kyu. The Democratic Party also scored a significant victory in Gangwon Province.
GNP candidate Kim Tae-ho did manage to win in Gimhae, the home turf of former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. But in his acceptance speech, he still acknowledged the electorate’s growing concern for social welfare. ‘I learned that we should try more to understand suffering by middle class people over livelihood matters,’ Kim said.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘South Koreans are particularly sensitive to inequality. It resonates quite strongly there, maybe more than in other developed democracies,’ says Sung-yoon Lee, adjunct assistant professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Boston. ‘That (economic) disparity is more grating in a more homogeneous society like South Korea. It's a very powerful issue for any politician to build a platform on.’
Last month’s elections are being seen by some as a likely precursor to the presidential poll, which is scheduled for late next year.
South Korea has been governed since early 2008 by the conservative Lee government, during which time the country emerged from the global economic crisis relatively unscathed. Still, some South Koreans fared better than others.
A study published in early April by the Hankyoreh newspaper showed a 73 percent rise in conglomerate profits alongside 10 percent growth in employment and 1.3 percent growth in workers’ income under the Lee administration. However, unemployment has risen at a time when consumer prices have been increasing, prompting concerns over growing inequality. Last month’s poll results almost certainly reflect these growing worries, a point underscored by the unusually large turnout.
According to the National Election Commission, 39.4 percent of about 3.2 million eligible voters went to the polls for a total of 38 contests nationwide, a significant uptick compared with an average 32.8 percent that have turned out for such polls since 2000, when by-elections started to be held twice a year.