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COVID-19 Factor Powers South Korea’s Ruling Party to Historic Victory

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The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

COVID-19 Factor Powers South Korea’s Ruling Party to Historic Victory

The Democratic Party wins unilateral control of the National Assembly, while conservatives and minor parties recede.

COVID-19 Factor Powers South Korea’s Ruling Party to Historic Victory

Democratic Party candidate (and former prime minister) Lee Nak-Yeon during a campaign rally, April 10, 2020.

Credit: Democratic Party of Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea won a resounding victory in the country’s quadrennial legislative elections on Wednesday. The liberal ruling party won 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly (including the 17 proportional representation seats won by its satellite Together Citizens’ Party), an increase of nearly 50 percent from the party’s haul of 123 in 2016. This is by far the largest majority won by any party in South Korea’s modern democratic era — the mainstream liberal party won a slim majority of 152 seats in 2004 and the mainstream conservative party won majorities in only 2008 and 2012, with just 153 and 152 seats, respectively.

Including the 19 proportional representation seats won by its satellite Future Korea Party, the conservative main opposition United Future Party won just 103 seats, barely enough to prevent a constitutional revision.

The swing region of Gyeonggi province, Seoul, and Incheon played a critical role in deciding the election’s outcome, breaking decisively in favor of the ruling party, with the main opposition winning just 16 of the 121 district seats there.

Regionalism also demonstrated its continued influence over the country’s politics. The United Future Party performed strongly in the southeastern Gyeongsang region, a conservative stronghold, and the Democratic Party dominated the southwestern Honam region, retaking its liberal stronghold and devastating the centrist minor opposition Party for People’s Livelihoods, which had gone into the election with 20 lawmakers and lost all of its seats. The minor party had its origins in Ahn Cheol-soo’s original center-left People’s Party, which had surprised observers in 2016 by winning nearly every seat in the Honam region and 38 in total. It is now expected to dissolve.

With 180 seats, and possibly 10 more votes available from other aligned minor parties and an independent lawmaker, the ruling party will have the numbers to unilaterally fast-track the passage of legislation, something that provoked violent scuffles between lawmakers last year and may again in Moon’s two remaining years in office. For now, the continuing response to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout will have priority, but Moon and the ruling party will be emboldened to pursue other policy goals, including further reforms to reduce the power of the prosecution service and deter investigations into members of Moon’s government and a renewed push for engagement with North Korea.

The 21st National Assembly will start on May 30, electing a new speaker from the ruling party to a two-year term to succeed incumbent Speaker Moon Hee-sang. The speaker, who manages the affairs of the National Assembly and traditionally plays an important role in parliamentary diplomacy, is required by law to renounce their party affiliation during their term.

Timing Was Everything

The Democratic Party’s win comes on the back of rising approval ratings for Moon and the highest voter turnout in 28 years, even as South Korea conducted one of the world’s first national elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the role of the pandemic in the ruling party’s victory cannot be overstated. Rather than being a midterm referendum on Moon’s performance as president in his three years in office so far, this year’s legislative elections transformed into a referendum on Moon’s response to the pandemic.

The Moon government’s initial slow response, inferior to that of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, at first seemed likely to provoke public backlash. COVID-19 looked poised to become another negative factor in the election for the ruling party alongside an economic slowdown, stalled diplomacy with North Korea, and the 2019 scandal centered on Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

But having learned lessons from the 2015 MERS outbreak, the government succeeded in halting the spread of COVID-19 quickly, earning international praise for a country that actively seeks affirmation. The South Korean government’s successful crisis management came just as other countries’ inept responses, particularly the disastrous response of the Trump administration in the United States, led to major outbreaks in other advanced countries, producing news coverage that established a clear contrast between South Korea’s condition and the state of the rest of the developed world. This galvanized public opinion in Moon’s favor in the days leading up to the vote, sending his approval rating up to 54 percent and obliterating concerns about depressed turnout on election day.

While Moon Jae-in was not on the ballot, in every way, this was his victory. It was on his strong approval ratings that the ruling party coasted to a majority in the National Assembly, and it is thanks to that majority and its unprecedented size that Moon will have the mandate and the means to carry forward his agenda through the end of his presidency in 2022.

The Democratic Party has now won three consecutive elections under Moon’s banner — the 2017 presidential by-election that brought him to power, the 2018 local elections that saw the ruling party win in 14 of the country’s 17 provinces and major cities, and now the elections to the National Assembly. No party since South Korea’s democratization has enjoyed such political dominance and lopsided control over the country.

Electoral Reform Fails Minor Parties

Satellite parties were a new feature of this year’s legislative elections. Back in December, the ruling party pushed a controversial electoral reform bill through the National Assembly.

South Korea’s National Assembly uses a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system in which voters cast one ballot for a political party and one for a candidate to represent their electoral district. In addition to lowering the voting age from 19 to 18, the electoral reform made changes to the way the National Assembly’s 47 proportional representation party-list seats would be distributed to better represent parties that did well in party-list vote share but did not win many district seats. This was intended to benefit minor parties, and the ruling party had offered its support at a time when it had been seeking minor parties’ support for Moon’s divisive drive for reforms to the powers of the prosecution service.

Many new minor parties were formed to seize upon this opportunity to more seriously contend for National Assembly seats through the party-list vote, producing a ballot with a record 35 parties. The length of the ballots forced the manual counting of ballots for the first time in 18 years.

But the United Future Party, which opposed both reform bills, quickly responded by deciding to run only district candidates and formed a small satellite party to run only proportional representation candidates to take maximum advantage of the new rules for distribution of party-list seats. The ruling party, which had criticized the main opposition party’s move, was then forced to respond in kind and form its own satellite party.

Ultimately, the ruling and main opposition parties combined with their satellite parties won 94 percent of the seats in the National Assembly despite their corresponding satellite parties together receiving only 67 percent of the party-list vote. This is comparable to the result in 2016, before the electoral reform, when the ruling and main opposition parties won 82 percent of the seats on 59 percent of the party-list vote.

Minor parties won just 12 seats — six for Sim Sang-jeung’s progressive Justice Party, three for Ahn Cheol-soo’s revived and now center-right People’s Party, and three for the splinter liberal Open Democratic Party. None of remaining 30 parties on the ballot won any district or proportional representation seats.

The National Assembly’s remaining five seats were won by four conservative independents, including the mainstream conservative party’s 2017 presidential nominee Hong Joon-pyo, and one liberal independent.

Both satellite parties are expected to now merge back into the ruling and main opposition parties with the election over. It remains to be seen whether the failure of the electoral reform will result in additional changes.

Cory Bisbee is a graduate of Clark University and founder of Sixth Risk, a political risk consultancy. He specializes in South Korean domestic politics and conducts research with a focus on the country’s party system, elections, and government structure.