The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Election: Beyond Coronavirus

Beyond COVID-19, can the upcoming parliamentary election help heal serious weaknesses in South Korea’s political system?

By Thomas Kalinowski for
South Korea’s Election: Beyond Coronavirus
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Dmthoth

Most South Koreans are satisfied with the way President Moon Jae-in’s administration has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis and it is expected that Moon’s Democratic Party will come out well ahead in the April 15 parliamentary election. So far, South Korea has been very successful in dealing with the pandemic without implementing drastic and widely adopted measures such as ordering people to stay at home.

Instead, the government quickly identified hotspots within the country, tracked down contacts and built up large testing capabilities. South Koreans were quick to react to the threat by wearing masks, largely due to fresh memories of the MERS outbreak in 2015. It helped that South Korea has a high-quality health system with universal health insurance.

In addition, the national development strategy included the ambition to build up a domestic healthcare industry. Instead of outsourcing production to China, South Korea has maintained large domestic capacities including the ability to produce more than 10 million face masks per day amid a massive global shortage.

Amid the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, a major new outbreak directly before the election could suddenly alter public opinion. But as things stand, it even seems possible that Moon’s Democratic Party could win an absolute majority in parliament, which would enable his administration to implement many of his 2015 election pledges. Moon’s track record so far is rather mixed as his administration failed to deliver on its promise for a more socially just and democratic nation.

Indeed, he backtracked on many of his promises, from reducing working hours and signing International Labor Organization conventions on freedom of association and forced labor to curbing real estate speculation and fighting some of the worst air pollution in the world. Moon’s presidency so far has been particularly disappointing because, despite his professional past as a human rights lawyer, he has not succeeded in lifting restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly under the anachronistic National Security Law, a dark shadow of past military regimes.

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While the Moon administration has been relatively successful in consolidating its power, it lacks a political compass and has failed to translate support from the public into real political change. This failure is symptomatic for the South Korean political system, in which parties are formed around networks of (seemingly powerful) individuals and not along distinct political ideologies or goals. “The party system is arguable the weakest link in South Korean democracy,” writes the soon-to-be-released Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) for 2020. Indeed, in South Korea political parties frequently disband and reform while parliamentarians frequently change party affiliation. Consequently, political discourses in South Korea tend to be both extremely polarized but at the same time lack clear distinctions when it comes to the political content.

The disaster of the election law reform in late 2019 is symptomatic of this structural weakness of South Korea’s democracy. For a long time, the (largely) first-past-the-post election system for the parliament has perpetuated the personalization of politics. Candidates do not win due to their political agenda but due to their personal prominence in the electoral district and their connections to powerful elites that allow them to “deliver.”

Consequently, strengthening proportional voting has always been discussed as a possible way to vitalize the democratic discourse. As Moon’s Democratic Party needed smaller coalition partners to govern after the presidential election in 2017, it seemed that finally the time had come for an electoral reform that would benefit smaller parties, which are more coherent in terms of their political agenda.

The revised election law will, however, most likely further weaken smaller parties and further aggravate political deal-making based on personal networks. Even after the reform, only 47 of the total 300 seats in the National Assembly will be allocated under proportional representation. To satisfy demands by smaller parties, 30 out of the 47 seats under proportional representation have become “compensatory” — they would go to parties that have won less seats via electoral districts than they would receive according to their proportional representation.

This new rule could have theoretically been an advantage for smaller parties, but in the meantime both large parties have founded satellite parties to benefit from this new rule. This cynical move would not just render the institutional changes useless and further undermine the electoral chances of small parties, but it might effectively eliminate political alternatives altogether, as some small party candidates defected to the new satellite parties.

The upcoming election is symbolic for the strengths and weaknesses of politics in South Korea. A beacon of democracy in the East Asian region, the country is managing the COVID-19 crisis with less intrusive measure than most countries in the West. At the same time, the elections will most likely worsen the trend toward personalized power politics, meaning that personality will remain more important than programmatic answers to the pressing issues of our time.

Thomas Kalinowski is a professor at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul and a long-time South Korea expert for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI).