South Korea’s Bumpy Election Year

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South Korea’s Bumpy Election Year

The surprise poll win by the ruling Saenuri Party has put Park Geun-hye in the driver’s seat for the presidential election. But seven months is a very long time in Korean politics.

South Korea’s National Assembly elections last month were supposed to shape the landscape for December’s presidential contest. Instead, the parliamentary outcome seems to have muddied the waters.

The unanticipated victory of the ruling Saenuri Party has put Park Geun-hye back in the driver’s seat as the front runner candidate in the latest opinion polls, but the presidential election is still seven months away, an eternity in South Korean politics.

The Asan Institute’s Woo Jung-yeop has analyzed the parliamentary vote in a Council on Foreign Relations Other Report, in which he concludes that the opposition Democratic Unification Party (DUP) was hurt by its decision to form a grand coalition, which pulled its campaign strategy to the left.  The DUP’s decision to run an anti-President Lee Myung-bak campaign failed as a result of internal discipline problems, especially the decision by anti-Lee podcaster and comedian Kim Young-min not to step down days before the election, despite widespread public criticism for past foul-mouthed and politically inappropriate remarks.  Moreover, the DUP’s effort to ride a wave of anti-American sentiment by campaigning against the KORUS FTA and construction of a naval base at Jeju Island foundered, in part, on the flip-flopping of DUP leaders who had initiated both projects when they were in power during the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

Although Park Geun-hye was hailed as an “election queen” following her party’s surprise win, the results provide considerable cautionary information regarding whether her campaign for president this December can be successful. The Saenuri Party lost in Seoul and Kyonggi Province, which comprise almost half of South Korea’s population, and the total number of votes for Saenuri Party candidates was less than for candidates from a combined opposition party.  Despite her apparent advantage, Park has drawn a surprising number of competitors in the ruling party primary, including five-time incumbent lawmaker and Hyundai heir Chong Mong-joon, Gyeonggi Provincial Gov. Kim Moon-soo, and Lee Myung-bak confidant and political strategist Lee Jae-Oh, and several other candidates.

The opposition side had been riding high following the strong performance of Park Won-soon in the by-elections for Seoul mayor, but was badly shaken by the National Assembly loss. The election results appear to have weakened former Roh Moo-hyun chief-of-staff Moon Jae-in, opening the way for others including former opposition leader Sohn Hak-kyu or relative newcomer Gyongsang Provincial Gov. Kim Doo-gwan to climb back into the race. It appears that the winner of any DUP primary contest would still face a run-off with popular SNU professor and IT entrepreneur Ahn Chul-soo, if he finally decides to run for the presidency. A divided opposition candidacy would provide the easiest path to the presidency for Park Geun-hye, who appears to have a solid plurality of support from her longstanding base of support in Kyeongsang Province.

The day after the parliamentary elections last month, the Korea Economic Institute sponsored a discussion of the election result with Victor Cha, Bruce Klingner, and myself, at which we identified two factors likely to shape the presidential election: an issues agenda primarily focused on social welfare policies and efforts to capture the middle ground versus simply mobilizing evenly-divided political bases. It was also argued that the United States is likely to be eager to work with South Korea’s next president regardless of who wins the December election.

Although South Korea’s presidential campaign process is mercifully compressed compared to the U.S. process, past election seasons have proven to be highly volatile, depending on the issues and mood, or “wind” that may arise as dominant influences on Korean voters in any particular election season.

The parliamentary outcome underscores that conservatives and progressives in South Korea’s political landscape are relatively evenly-divided; for this reason, the traditional rule of thumb in analyzing Korean presidential electoral maneuvering is to expect the unexpected.

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.