Pendulum Swings in South Korea
Image Credit: Philippe Teuwen

Pendulum Swings in South Korea

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This week’s National Assembly elections in South Korea were in some ways only an appetizer for the presidential poll coming later this year, but the slender victory by the ruling Saenuri Party (New Frontier Party) is already being seen as a possible sign of what to expect in December.

On April 11, the Saenuri Party bested its main rival, the Democratic United Party (DUP), winning 152 seats out of a possible 300 seats. The DUP secured 127 seats, while the United Progressive Party won 13 seats. The victory by Saenuri, which recently changed its name from the Grand National Party, is a welcome relief for the conservative ruling party after it lost its foothold in historically safe districts in by-elections in April 2011. In a by-election last October, meanwhile, a civil rights lawyer and activist made a successful political debut for the DUP by defeating the favored GNP candidate.

Since then, the ruling party has undertaken a massive makeover, including its name change, the creation of the Emergency Response Commission, headed by Park Geun-hye, to prepare for the legislative and presidential elections, and the launch of an extensive social media campaign to reach out to younger voters. With Saenuri struggling through this identity crisis, the DUP was expected to score a landslide win in this week’s National Assembly election.

So what were some key trends that helped the Saenuri Party?

For a start, the image makeover and centralization of policy proved to be effective. In addition to trying to reach out to younger voters and the middle class, the party also increasingly focused on issues such as social welfare, while working to differentiate itself from the administration of President Lee Myung-bak. Prior to the election, some Saenuri backers expressed concern that the right wing party was losing its identity by aligning with progressive issues, but many of these doubters will have been silenced by the party’s dramatic change in fortunes.

Saenuri’s gamble seems to have paid off for two reasons. First, swing voters, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, are focused less on ideology and more on practical concerns like jobs and salaries. Saenuri’s new platform of social welfare and job growth therefore appealed to their day-to-day needs. Compounding the DUP’s woes was the fact that it didn’t really have a clear and contrasting policy platform beyond social welfare and economic democratization. The party’s more provocative polices, such as campaigning strongly against corruption within Saenuri and nullifying the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, were largely seen by voters as simply anti-administration rhetoric.   

The desire for new faces in politics was another key trend. Many incumbents and members of the old guard struggled as new faces in Korean politics made a splash. Only 55 incumbents were re-elected out of the 172 conservative party seats, and 45 out of the 87 liberal party ones. Meanwhile, sixteen women won directly elected seats, the largest number in history. New faces among the proportional representation candidates included Cho Myung-chul, the first North Korean defector; Jasmine Lee, the first naturalized Korean citizen; and Jun Soon-oak, the sister of a deceased civil rights activist. In addition, five candidates in their 20s and 30s were elected.

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