Features | Politics | East Asia

Pendulum Swings in South Korea

South Korea’s ruling Saenuri Party pulled off a surprise victory in this week’s National Assembly elections. The contest offered some insights into the changing face of politics there.

By Sarah K. Yun for

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.

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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.

More broadly, the election saw a shake-up in previous regional voting trends. In recent years, the Seoul/Gyeonggi/Busan regions have typically favored the more conservative party. Yet in the latest polls, Saenuri performed well in Gangwon and Chungcheong, which have traditionally been considered liberal provinces. This reshuffling in regional voting trends suggests that Korean society is changing. The problem for Saenuri, though, is that the DUP dominated in Seoul/Gyeonggi/Busan, a fact that doesn’t bode well for the ruling party in the presidential race.

Another interesting trend this election was the increasing use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to encourage voter turnout and engage with voters on hot button issues.Candidates of all ages and across the political spectrum ramped up their use of social media, some more successfully than others. Yet while social media is embraced by the parties as a way of promoting further development of participatory democracy, it also offered another means with which to distort opponents’ views and spread unfounded rumors. This is a trend that will only intensify in the presidential election, and it will be interesting to see how both sides utilize it.

So what does all this mean? For one thing, it reflects the changes going on in South Korean society. Koreans are increasingly willing to take things into their own hands, and take action on issues that matter to them. In addition, young people once dismissed as politically apathetic seem increasingly likely to turn out and vote. This trend is likely to be fuelled as non-traditional political faces make their way into the country’s “old boys’ network.”

As a result of this, political parties are increasingly trying to create centralized messaging to attract these demographics. But social media and new faces are also increasing the possibility of surprises at the polls. This has meant that in recent years, the political pendulum has appeared to swing from one political extreme to another, something that both major parties are working to remedy in their favor.

The Saenuri Party will work to fold its emergency commission into the party system, while the Democratic United Party will no doubt attempt to regain momentum by continuing criticism of the Lee government corruption and the scandals.

But these broader efforts could become hostage to specific developments, such as whether the DUP will get the public hearings it has demanded over government scandals, and how well Park copes if selected as Saenuri’s candidate for the presidential election. And of course there’s North Korea – with its failed rocket launch and talk of another nuclear test, the unpredictable regime of Kim Jong-un is bound to loom large over South Korea. Right now, it’s difficult to predict for sure which way the pendulum with be swinging come December.

Sarah K. Yun is Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.