South Korean President Park Geun-hye is clinging on to power, but her grip is noticeably weakening. As an enormous corruption scandal rumbles on, Park remains nominally in post, but her decisions no longer carry any authority, and nothing she proposes has any hope of gaining political traction. On Saturday, approximately 100,000 South Korean citizens converged on the capital, Seoul, for a second weekly candlelit protest against her. Public displays of anger like this won’t bring down the president by themselves, but they do reduce the freedom of strategic movement for ruling and opposition politicians alike, thus making it more likely that Park will ultimately have to stand aside.
Calls for Park to resign have grown more raucous since a smaller protest took place in the South Korean capital on October 30. Park bears the majority of responsibility for the rising tenor of public displeasure. Her decisions in the intervening days betrayed scant understanding of the depths of popular hostility. She nominated Kim Byong-joon to take over the day-to-day reins of domestic politics, but without consulting with members of the National Assembly, who would have to approve her choice. That was bound to be unacceptable, and Park was forced to effectively withdraw Kim’s nomination less than a week later. The main newspaper of the left, Hankyoreh, is determined to see Park not merely withdraw from public life, but resign. That is also the position of the Justice Party, a minor party of the left with six seats in the national legislature whose regional representatives convened on Monday to adopt a resolution calling for the president’s immediate removal.
That outcome would be very bad news for the parties of the left. Knowing this perfectly well, opposition politicians with a plausible chance of taking over from Park are adopting a more cautious line. For two reasons, the last thing they want right now is an election. First, there are currently far too many viable left-wing candidates for president. The field is crowded with big hitters like Moon Jae-in, Ahn Cheol-soo, and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, as well as the incumbent mayor of Seongnam, Lee Jae-myung, and the governor of South Chungcheong Province, Ahn Hee-jung. Each is performing credibly in various polls, and they show no outward sign of agreement on who might stand in a hypothetical election. If that election were to take place soon, the result could easily be a split left-wing vote, and this would hand victory to a conservative candidate.
Second, even if the charismatic leaders of the left were able to coalesce around a unified presidential candidate, the left-wing parties simply aren’t polling well enough to be confident of being competitive, let alone winning. In weekly polling done by Gallup Korea, the damage the current scandal has done to the ruling Saenuri Party is abundantly clear; since the beginning of September, party support has fallen 16 percent, from 34 percent to 18 percent, mirroring the collapse of support for Park herself, which has gone from 33 percent to 5 percent (it has since declined even further, according to some polls; Real Meter, however, has her at 11.5 percent). However, that decline in party popularity has not necessarily translated into support for the main opposition parties, the Minjoo Party and the People’s Party; the former has gained seven percent in the same period, the latter just one percent. The remainder of the disaffected electorate has drifted into the “don’t know” category, and it is probable that this group will return to the conservatives if and when the scandal subsides or they are asked to go into the voting booth. If Park were to leave or be forced out of the Saenuri Party, which is highly likely, and then also out of office, which would trigger an election, then once again a conservative party candidate would have an excellent chance of winning the presidency.
Thus, rational political calculation says that it is better for the left to leave Park in the Blue House and use her as a lightning rod for public discontent until the mandated presidential election comes around in December next year. But the people are of a different mind. An even bigger demonstration is scheduled for next Saturday, this time with professional organizers taking front-line positions. What they want is the president’s head; there is seemingly no appetite for the long game. This understandable desire for immediate catharsis may end up tying the hands of politicians, creating inertia that they can no longer resist.
Strategy be damned, though, for nobody can afford to look unresponsive to the public’s emotional reaction to the current mega-scandal. Rather than come out in favor of Park’s resignation, therefore, the two main opposition parties have both put conditions on sitting around a table with her. If she were to fail to meet those conditions, one of which was the withdrawal of Kim Byong-joon’s nomination, opposition leaders say they would begin campaigning for Park to go once and for all. Salami-slicing demands in order to escalate the situation as slowly as possible makes sense in the political calculus, but the public has lost interest in that kind of strategizing. Those coming out on the streets each Saturday are part of a rich history of public dissent that has led to political change before; everybody recalls how, in the 1980s, the South Korean people brought down a military dictatorship with their own hands.
In the context of South Korean democratic politics, the public performs the role of gatekeeper. By the threat of mass protest, it sets limits on what the parties to a political dispute can do. This time it could backfire badly. Opposition politicians are being backed into a corner from which, if President Park does not yield to enough of their demands, they will not be able to readily escape. One consequence could be a conservative election victory in 2017.
Christopher Green is a researcher in Korean Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is currently co-editor of Sino-NK and formerly worked as Manager of International Affairs for Daily NK in Seoul.