South Korea’s presidential campaign formally launched on November 26 with seven registered candidates. The main candidates today are ruling Saenuri party representative Park Geun-hye and progressive opposition Democratic Unity Party (DUP) representative Moon Jae-in. The election is likely to turn on the following factors: a unified support base, demography, and turnout. Here are some factors to watch as South Korea’s campaign reaches its climax with a national vote to be held on Wednesday.
Unifying the base: Since South Korea has been roughly evenly divided between conservatives and progressives in recent elections, a prerequisite for campaign success is a unified constituency behind a single candidate. Past South Korean elections have clearly taught both sides that a divided base or third party candidacy will tip the balance in South Korea’s closely divided electorate. This year, conservatives united early while progressives have waited until the last minute to back a unified candidate.
Following two months of suspense over who would be the main progressive opponent to center-right candidate Park (selected last August amidst token opposition), IT entrepreneur, scholar, and independent candidate Ahn Chulsoo finally conceded to DUP candidate Moon Jae-in, a lawyer who served as former President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff, in late November. Ahn’s concession made Moon the major candidate opposing Park, who has quietly moved to unite conservative support for her candidacy.
This tumultuous prelude to the campaign highlights a major issue facing progressives: whether or not they can heal, unite, and mobilize behind Moon’s candidacy in the space of only three weeks. For this reason, Moon needs Ahn Chulsoo supporters if he is to have a chance of beating Park. Initial polls following Ahn’s abrupt November 24 withdrawal from the race found that only fifty-five percent of Ahn’s supporters said that they would definitely support Moon, but since Ahn rejoined the campaign trail in active support of Moon in early December, the race has been getting tighter. If Moon wins, he will owe a debt to Ahn.
Maximizing the demographic advantage: The 2012 American electoral outcome was a reminder that a demographic edge can be decisive. Translated into a Korean context, the picture can be quite complex. Historically, regionalism has been defined as all-important, but Park’s stronghold is southeastern Kyongsang province while Moon hails from the largest southeastern city, Busan. This means that Moon has an opportunity to eat into Park’s southeastern support base, while Park’s challenge is to perform more competitively in the Seoul-Gyeonggi region near the national capitol where DUP supporters are in the majority. The DUP carried aggregate vote numbers decisively in the Seoul-Gyeonggi region in the April National Assembly elections.
There is also a clear generational divide among the South Korean electorate, with Park leading decisively among the over-50 generation and Moon expected to win decisively among the under-40 generation. This makes the generation in their 40s, which also represents the largest generational cohort, a decisive constituency. This group experienced the political euphoria of South Korea’s transition to democracy from authoritarianism in the 1980s, but is now consumed with financial responsibilities as breadwinners and family budget managers that make them yearn for economic stability and growth.
Finally, Asan Institute polling reveals an 8-10 point gender gap between Ms. Park and Mr. Moon that could be decisive if Moon cannot find ways of compensating. This is interesting because Park will make history as South Korea’s first woman president if she wins, and if she does, she will owe her victory to women voters even though she owes her political career as much to her father’s political legacy as a former president as to the fact that she has beaten conservative, male party standard-bearers at their own game.
Mobilizing voters: Given the generational divide within South Korea’s electorate, a decisive factor in determining the electoral outcome will be turnout. Put simply, older voters vote, but younger voters may not. A report by South Korea’s National Election Commission shows the impact of voter turnout in the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections. Although the percentage of voters over age 50 was close to seventy percent in both elections, under 40 voter turnout in the 2007 election languished well under sixty percent in 2007 when Lee Myung-bak won, compared to an over 60 percent turnout in 2002, the year that Roh Moo-hyun won. This means that Ahn’s support for the progressive ticket is essential since his support base came primarily from the younger generation until he dropped out of the race in late November. A youth voter surge, mobilized by South Korea’s vaunted social media prowess, will be essential to a Moon victory.
With the latest polls showing Park with a narrow half-a-percentage-point lead over Moon, many observers say that this may be one of the closest presidential elections in South Korean history.
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 is the editor, most recently of Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security (Council on Foreign Relations, 2012). Snyder was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS., and blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.