South Korean party politics can be very confusing. It is a never-ending kaleidoscope of rebrandings, splits and mergers spiced with convoluted electoral procedures. And yet, despite the global coronavirus pandemic and international economic crisis, South Korea is diligently preparing for its next legislative election. With both supporters and opponents of the government equally divided, the national political discourse is becoming increasingly polarized and the 2020 election promises to be extremely competitive.
This article outlines the political context of the upcoming election as well as the three key factors that will influence the South Korean political process in the upcoming weeks. It also elaborates on why the election’s outcomes are likely to be favorable for the incumbent president despite the high degree of political polarization in the country.
To understand the context of the 2020 election, one needs to briefly look back at the most recent developments in the South Korean political history.
President Moon Jae-in, who is a left-leaning progressive, represents of one of the two major South Korean political parties. He was swept in power after the massive protests of 2016-2017 and the downfall of his predecessor, a national conservative, Park Geun-hye. Park, who mishandled a massive corruption scandal, became the first impeached president in South Korea’s history and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
The 2016 scandal not only destroyed Park’s career but also collapsed the conservative party’s ratings to their lowest levels since the early 2000s. Moon and his party, on the contrary, experienced a surge in popularity after Park’s debacle. Easily winning the 2017 presidential election, Moon promised to focus on a number of key issues – job creation, fair social policy, and inter-Korean reconciliation.
The 2020 election, therefore, should be seen as a referendum on Moon’s policies and what his administration has achieved so far. In this context, there are three main factors that will determine the election’s outcome.
The first factor is the Moon administration’s policy progress. The problem is that there is not much clarity on its results so far, especially in the socio-economic sphere. The opposition bashes Moon for increasing minimum wages and putting too much pressure on businesses, while some of his supporters complain that after a rather energetic start his reforms practically stalled. Under Moon’s reign South Korea also suffered severe blows from the Sino-American economic bullying and a trade clash with Japan. His social reforms caused heated debates among business owners and even some blue collar workers. The progress he achieved on the inter-Korean front, his critics say, has not brought anything to the country but immense expenses on summits with North Korea.
Progressives, on the other hand, claim that Moon’s first three years in office merely laid the foundation for achieving the policy priorities his administration had set out. They argue that the reforms initiated by Moon improved the working conditions of rank-and-file employees and systematized the semi-bankrupt pension system. They hail Moon’s diplomatic achievements of 2018-2019, which created a platform for negotiations between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. Now the denuclearization progress largely hinges on Washington, they argue, and with the upcoming U.S. presidential elections Moon can do nothing but wait.
The second factor is the consolidation of the opposition. Will it be harder for the ruling party to resist the newly formed conservative coalition? After the disastrous 2016 scandal, the biggest conservative party rebranded itself twice and recently merged with several minor parties to oppose the progressives in the upcoming election. It has also restored some of its former popularity, rising in the polls from 20 percent to 28 to 34 percent in the past two years.
Nevertheless, these consolidation attempts were not entirely effective. The newly emerged opposition block failed to include Bareun Mirae splits (Mingseng and Kunmin parties). Bareun Mirae was the second-biggest center-right force in the country until it split in 2020. With the two new minor parties likely to eat away 4 to 10 percent from the new conservative block, the aggregate social polls show that the progressives are leading by a thin margin of 4 to 6 percent. Since most of the seats in the South Korean National Assembly are distributed using first-past-the-post system, this can be just enough to win.
The third factor is the ongoing coronavirus crisis. COVID-19 suddenly complicated political calculations for everyone in South Korea at the start of 2020. It also became the key policy issue in the ongoing election cycle with more than 8,000 South Koreans affected by the virus.
The opposition saw the virus’s quick spread as an opportunity to garner more support. Slamming the Moon administration for incompetent handling of the crisis, the conservatives attempted to make political gains by criticizing Moon for not completely closing the border with China. A publicly registered petition on the president’s website with the demand to impeach Moon for mishandling the coronavirus crisis gathered more than 1.4 million signatures in two months. The public discontent, it would seem, is mounting.
Is Moon facing a political crisis? If the public opinion is analyzed more carefully, it becomes clear that things are more complicated than they seem (as they usually are). First, the impeachment call is not likely to fly, with the majority of South Koreans showing their approval of the government’s strategy on combating the virus. Around 1.32 million people signed a petition that expressed support for the president’s policy as a response to the petition calling for his impeachment. Moreover, many South Koreans blame the surge in the number of coronavirus cases not on the government, but on the Shincheonji church. The religious organization did not report the first coronavirus cases among its members to the public authorities for a long period of time, which had disastrous consequences for the South Korean healthcare system.
The opposition’s attempts to draw political gains from the ongoing health crisis are understandable but they have not brought much benefit to it so far. One could even argue that some of these attempts backfired and even dealt reputational damage. For example, Foreign Policy in a recent article — “Cults and Conservatives Spread Coronavirus in South Korea” — blasted South Korean conservatives for holding rallies despite WHO recommendations to avoid massive events. This sentiment is shared by some South Koreans, who will soon head to the polls.
To conclude, the ruling party is very likely to preserve or even increase its majority in the parliament based on the analysis of the aforementioned factors and aggregate social polls. Nonetheless, the 2020 election will be a very close race. One also has to bear in mind that South Koreans can change their policy preferences very quickly, as the 2016 scandal shows. Thus, if the current government does not seriously commit to implement the reform agenda that Moon announced at the beginning of his presidency, the voters will not hesitate to punish it.
Ildar Daminov is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, who is currently employed by Visionary Analytics, a policy think-tank based in Vilnius.