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.
‘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.
Still, despite concerns over the economy, the leading candidate for the presidency is GNP lawmaker Park Geun-hye, daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee. Park has for the past two years enjoyed healthy leads in the polls and looks like having a good chance of becoming the first female head of state in Northeast Asia. Sohn Hak-kyu’s victory in Bundang, meanwhile, has boosted his profile and signalled his emergence as a credible candidate for the opposition Democratic Party.
The contest in Bundang was largely decided by working age voters, according to a statement released by Gallup Korea, which found 83.9 percent of voters in their 30s backing Sohn, along with 58.5 percent of those in their 40s. A cornerstone of GNP support has traditionally been older voters who generally oppose social welfare and whose memories of the Korean War mean they are generally unsupportive of any engagement with North Korea.
The experiences of what some analysts call the ‘486 Generation’ also shape their political orientation. The moniker refers to voters aged in their 40s, who attended university in the 1980s. Voters in this age group participated in the democracy movement of the 1980s and maintain a strong aversion to authoritarianism as well as backing social welfare and engagement with North Korea. Many therefore expect the 486 Generation to defy the usual trend of voters becoming more conservative as they get older.
The 486 Generation also has another built-in advantage in terms of electoral influence. South Korea has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, and as the older generation passes away and there are fewer young to replace them, the 486 Generation could see its influence maintained or even grow in future elections.
Another key demographic to keep an eye on is the nation’s youngest voters, dubbed the 88 Generation, in reference to 1988, when South Korea hosted the Olympics. The hosting of the games was meant to usher in an era of widespread prosperity, and children born that year were expected to lead a fully developed South Korea upon entering adulthood. Yet the reality is that many are instead toiling in low paying, part-time jobs. Youth unemployment, meanwhile, is stubbornly high.
It is, of course, too early to predict the outcome of next year’s presidential poll, but last month’s results certainly suggest Lee’s shift to the right has backfired as South Koreans look for a government willing to take a more active role in protecting citizens during tough economic times.
‘Perception matters more than fact in politics,’ says Prof. Lee. ‘And the perception among many South Koreans that life is harder today than it was three or four years ago is what will matter to many voters.’
Steven Borowiec is a South Korea based writer. His work has appeared in 'The Guardian' and 'Global Post' among other publications.