The Koreas

Why South Koreans Voted for Change

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The Koreas

Why South Koreans Voted for Change

While voters in South Korea may have shifted to the left, the political spectrum moved to the right.

Why South Koreans Voted for Change
Credit: Zerbor via

In the Korean parliamentary election held on April 13, 2016, President Park Geun-hye’s conservative Saenuri Party lost both the majority and its status as the largest parliamentary faction. The result was a surprising one, as polls in the run-up to the election had unanimously predicted a decisive victory for the Saenuri Party.

Instead, the Saenuri Party won just 122 seats, down from 146 in the outgoing parliament. The opposition Democratic Party (Minjoodang), often characterized as “left of center,” increased its number of seats from 102 to 123. The New People’s Party (Googmineuidang), which split from the main opposition in February 2016 and lies somewhere between the two established parties on the political spectrum, won 38 seats, up from 20. The progressive Justice Party (Jeonguidang) won 6 seats – one more than in the outgoing parliament. Eleven independent candidates were also elected, seven of them critics of President Park from within her own party who had been denied a candidacy.

The election marks an unexpected loss for the conservative camp despite a divided opposition and the arrival of a third major party in the Korean parliament after two decades of two-party dominance. The result can be explained in part by strategic voting on the part of large sectors of the electorate.

In the Korean voting system, 253 seats are decided in electoral districts with a first-past-the-post system, while 47 seats are filled by proportional representation. As voters have two votes, many chose to strategically split their vote, selecting the most likely opposition candidate in protest against President Park and her party. As a result, the Democratic Party succeeded in becoming the largest parliamentary faction with 25.5 percent of the vote. The Saenuri Party remained the most popular with 33.5 percent (down from 42.8 percent), and the People’s Party came in second with 26.7 percent. The Justice Party received 7.2 percent of the popular vote.

The Election’s Biggest Winner: Ahn Cheol-soo

The newly established People’s Party led by Ahn Cheol-soo is the election’s biggest winner, with Ahn firmly establishing himself as a candidate for the presidential elections. Exactly what Ahn stands for politically is unclear; his success can largely be attributed to protest votes and his image as a successful entrepreneur and political outsider.

In general terms, the opposition’s victory should not be confused with a political shift to the left. Policy platforms and political debate were almost entirely absent from the electoral campaign, which was dominated by power struggles among influential individuals and their personal networks. While voters may have shifted to the left, the political spectrum has arguably moved to the right. The two opposition leaders Kim Chong-in (Minjoo) and Ahn Cheol-soo (Googmin) have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the traditional image of the opposition party as being rooted in the student and labor movement, promising to move their party to the “political center.”

What does the outcome of the election mean for the remaining 22 months of the Park administration? In Korea’s presidential democracy, the president has wide-ranging constitutional powers, but President Park, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second term, needs the parliament in order to pass bills, and is therefore most likely to become a lame duck president. The prospects of implementing her pro-business agenda to liberalize labor markets and pass tougher security laws now appear slim. Furthermore, she is weakened within her party as some of her key allies failed to win parliamentary seats.

An interesting question is how the Saenuri Party will react to the defeat. The party suffered heavy losses both in the capital region of Seoul, where almost half of all Koreans live, and in other urban areas, including its former regional strongholds of Daegu and Busan in the southeast. Accordingly, the Saenuri Party is in danger of becoming a party of the past, supported by rural voters and the older generation.

Hardline Stances Toward North Korea May Be Abandoned

Can Park Geun-hye reinvent the party as she did in 2012, when she won the election by shifting her conservative party to the political center, adopting the slogan of economic democratization and welfare? Given the pragmatism she has shown in the past, one way of avoiding going down in history as a lame duck president might be to abandon her hardline stance towards North Korea and push for a formal peace treaty, 63 years on from the end of the Korean War. In view of the general support of the U.S. in this matter, this might be Park’s only option to avoid lame duck status and retain some influence in the selection of the conservative candidate for the presidential election (she appears to favor UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon).

For political scientists, pollsters, and the media, the election’s surprise results are an urgent wake-up call highlighting the need for improved methods and a better understanding of political discourse and opinions among the public. Although the dissatisfaction with the president and her party revealed by the election was palpable in the South Korean society, election polls and political surveys failed dismally to reflect this mood. None of the election polls predicted the opposition’s victory, and Park’s published approval ratings equally failed to reflect the degree of dissatisfaction with her government.

On a positive note, it appears that concerns about a further regression of Korean democracy may have been overly pessimistic. Such concerns were fueled by the scandal of National Intelligence Service (NIS) interference in the election campaign during the 2012 presidential election, the controversial Constitutional Court ruling in 2014 banning the Unified Progressive Party on the grounds of alleged connections to North Korea, and general concerns about limits on freedom of expression. No interference by the NIS was apparent in this election, and Koreans clearly demonstrated their willingness and ability to punish an unpopular government at the voting booths.

However, other obstacles to the continued development of Korean democracy remain, such as limits on freedom of expression through misuse of defamation suits, government interference in the media, and an election law which suppresses political debate and even bans citizens from publicly supporting a specific candidate or party during the election period. Compared with other OECD countries, South Korea is still ranked among the worst in terms of democratic quality (37 out of 41 nations), as shown by the latest Sustainable Governance Indicators published by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

The presidential election in December 2017 will be the next important test of Korea’s ability to join the very small group of mature democracies in East Asia, 30 years on from the democratic revolution of 1987.

Thomas Kalinowski is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Graduate School of International Studies of Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea. He co-authored the SGI 2016 South Korea Report.