The drubbing of President Park Geun-hye’s ruling Saenuri Party in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections turns a leader already constrained by legislative gridlock into a full-blown lame duck.
Park had hoped a strong showing by her conservatives would breathe fresh life into her legislative agenda, which the liberal opposition had constantly stymied. Under the rules of the National Assembly, a bill can only be brought to the floor for a vote with the consent of three-fifths of lawmakers. With the Saenuri Party holding only a paper-thin majority of seats, the 19th National Assembly set a new record for legislative inaction. Dubbed a “do-nothing” parliament by media, it passed less than a third of the bills that came before it, leaving some 11,000 proposed laws to die without a vote. Park’s policies, including economic reforms that would make it easier for companies to fire underperforming workers, have made little headway as a result.
That gridlock appears solidified following Wednesday’s vote, in which the center-left Minjoo Party secured 123 seats, one more than the Saenuri Party, and the new People’s Party, led by software mogul-turned-politician Ahn Cheol-soo, nabbed 38.
While his party has positioned itself to the center, Ahn is seen to harbor liberal sympathies, having defected from the center-left block just several months earlier.
Together, the two parties take up 161 of the 300 seats in the Assembly: a formidable block, but short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the president’s veto. Without a sharp turn to the politics of compromise, neither the conservatives nor their opponents are likely to achieve much before the next president takes office in early 2018.
As president, Park does at least have room to maneuver in foreign policy. Like their American counterparts, South Korean presidents have often looked abroad as a last-ditch effort to secure their legacy.
Lee Myung-bak, Park’s predecessor from the same party, became the first president to visit Dokdo, a pair of tiny disputed islets that are a continual source of tension between South Korea and Japan, in the twilight of his presidency. Before that, Roh Moo-hyun, a human rights lawyer-turned-liberal politician, met late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, ostensibly to promote peace and reconciliation, just weeks ahead of his departure from the Blue House. But even a foreign policy coup may now be beyond Park’s reach.
“I fear this new talk of a Park foreign policy legacy initiative is clutching at straws; pie in the sky; a desperate effort to salvage something after an electoral rout which is largely her fault,” Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea watcher based in the U.K., told The Diplomat.
“Face it: She is a busted flush and a lame duck now. Foreign powers, friend or foe, know that too.”