Since 2002, the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) had won every Seoul mayoral election. That was until last month, when Progressive candidate Park Won-soon emerged victorious on the back of a campaign that pledged to create a local government that connects with voters.
The GNP loss is a strong indication of the South Korean public’s desire for change. The Seoul mayoral election is considered a bellwether, with the capital being home to 10 million voters, which is about one-fifth of the South Korean population. But this year, Seoul’s election was more significant than ever. With upcoming general elections in April and the presidential election following in December, the mayoral election was seen as a chance to secure some momentum.
Backed by an alliance of opposition parties including the country’s main opposition Democratic Party (DP), Park, a human rights lawyer who led various social movements as well as two major civic groups in South Korea, came out on top in a fiercely fought contest.
Park is known for his conciliatory tone toward North Korea and for promoting cooperation between the North and South. But his chances were significantly boosted after he secured the support of Dr. Ahn Cheol-Soo, a national icon for his achievements in the field of anti-virus technology and as a motivational speaker for young people. Ahn was originally considered a likely candidate, but withdrew from contention and publicly announced his support for Park. With Ahn’s backing and an effective Twitter campaign, Park came from near obscurity to triumph.
The GNP candidate, Na Kyung-won, was well-known among Korean voters, having started her political career as a special aide for women’s affairs during the 2002 presidential election. She also worked as the GNP’s spokeswoman from 2006 to 2008. Last year, she ran against Oh Se-hoon, the former mayor of Seoul, to win the right to compete in last month’s election.
Both Park and Na’s policy platforms focused on welfare reform, and they both agreed on the need for a better social safety net. However, while progressives like Park supported a universal and wide-ranging social safety net, the GNP argued for a more limited system that would apply only to those most in need. Yet, while Park’s policies were directly related to demands of younger voters, a desire for political change in South Korea was overwhelmingly the single most influential factor behind his win.
Elections in Seoul have long been described as a form of class warfare between the conservative upper middle class and the liberal middle to lower classes. But this election was different. People from their 20s to 40s were not only unhappy with their economic situation, but were also frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of connectivity between traditional politics and the needs of the public. Voting for an independent candidate was, therefore, the South Korean equivalent of occupying Wall Street.
Each generation of voters took a stand for different reasons. One factor was rising unemployment among young people, as well as the burden of massive student loan debt. These two issues were raised during the 2007 presidential election, but the ruling GNP has apparently failed to resolve these issues satisfactorily. In addition, the unemployment rate among people in their 20s has been steadily increasing, reaching 8.7 percent last April.
Second, continuing economic and social stratification pushed voters in their 30s and 40s to the polls. The Lee Myung-bak administration’s free market policies have promoted growth and improved the economic environment for corporations. But much of the public, facing rising inflation, increased housing costs and continued job insecurity, has grown disillusioned.
Park’s victory should be seen as a warning sign to the political establishment, and South Korean lawmakers must be prepared to listen to the demands of the public. If mainstream political parties continue to fail to connect with the public, then voters will increasingly turn to independent candidates who are seen as free from the rigidities of the party system, and who place welfare issues above foreign policy.
Kyu-toi Moon is a James Kelly Korean Studies Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.