They seemed to have it in the bag. With the sinking of a South Korean warship, North Korea had again become public enemy No. 1. Polls revealed overall support for how South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had handled the crisis, and high voting rates among older conservatives meant this group were set to tip the balance in favour of his Grand National Party.
But after a sleepless night on Wednesday during which votes from South Korea’s local elections were being counted, the GNP went to bed Thursday distraught and confused after taking a surprising beating by rival Democratic Party candidates in two swing provinces and in the Incheon mayoral race (a symbolic loss, as the Cheonan corvette was allegedly torpedoed on March 26 in the port city’s jurisdiction).
So what happened? According to analysts, young voters weren’t as apathetic as the pollsters thought.
‘One very interesting part of the election was that young people used Twitter,’ to encourage their peers to go vote, says Kang Won-taek, an expert on domestic politics at Soongsil University. ‘This is a very rare phenomenon in this country. Many people think [younger people] are apolitical in comparison with people who were their age in the 1980s or 90s.’
‘In this election they were awakened,’ he adds.
Throughout the day Wednesday, hundreds of Twitter users ‘re-tweeted’ links to smart phone applications delivering real-time election results.
As of noon, the turnout was lower than the 2006 local elections, the media reported, but the rate was boosted in the afternoon largely by voters in their 20s and early 30s. The final turnout rate was 54.5 percent of eligible voters, the highest in 15 years, with the GNP taking six seats compared with the DP’s seven. (The three remaining seats were taken by two independents and a minor opposition party candidate).
In Seoul, people in those age groups voted overwhelmingly for DP candidate Han Myung-sook—56.7 percent and 64.2 percent, respectively—according an exit poll by public broadcaster KBS. Han, a former prime minister, lost by a razor-thin margin to a humbled Oh Se-hoon, the GNP incumbent.
Riding on the wind
During the campaign, analysts and the media described competing ‘winds’ as the driving forces in the election: a ‘North Wind’ in support of hard-line steps against North Korea pushed by the GNP, and a ‘Roh Wind,’ rallying for the late President Roh Moo-Hyun’s opposition party almost exactly a year since his suicide.
Roh, though unpopular during his 2003-2008 presidency, became a kind of martyr among liberals after he leaped to his death after being grilled over alleged bribe-taking. One Korean twitter user, @someiland, put a twist on South Korea’s bid slogan to host the 2022 World Cup, ‘Again 2002!’ to express his support for the DP. Roh won the presidential elections in 2002, the same year Korea and Japan co-hosted the World Cup.
Kang says the GNP drew a backlash for its attempt to hype the Cheonan sinking during the campaign, and adds that the election also revealed the importance of ‘lifestyle politics’ to voters.
For Jeong Seung-hui, a 31-year-old office worker who voted for the Democratic Party, the ‘four rivers’ project was among the most important issues. Billed by President Lee as an endeavour to clean up South Korea’s four largest rivers and guard against flooding, the project has been fiercely opposed by environmentalists.
Jeong says the ‘North Wind’ influenced her vote some—but not the way the Grand National Party might have hoped.
‘When the Cheonan first sank, the reason the people criticized the government was because of its slow response,’ Jeong says. Now, the administration’s overbearing reaction to the issue has had the opposite effect of turning off voters like herself, she adds.
‘This [outcome] is very important for the Lee Myung-bak government,’ says Jaung Hoon, professor of political science at Chung-Ang University. He notes that Lee rode victory in the 2007 presidential race due mainly to widespread support from young voters for his promise to revive the economy.
A perceived failure to make good on that pledge may have hurt his party.
‘When he was elected two years ago, people thought [Lee] was going to fix the economy,’ says Kim Jeong-joo, 28, who is studying for his masters in economics and voted for a third-party opposition candidate in his home province of Gyeonggi. ‘But I don’t see any difference between before and after he took office.’
But for Kim Ji-soo, 23, his Democratic Party vote was about checks and balances. The GNP has a strong majority in parliament and made strides in the last local elections in 2006.
‘All the power was in one place,’ he says. ‘So I thought it wouldn’t be bad to balance it out.’