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Have South Korean Conservatives Made a Full Comeback?

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The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

Have South Korean Conservatives Made a Full Comeback?

The People Power Party’s makeover has come a long way, but there are still some hurdles to overcome to compete with the progressives.

Have South Korean Conservatives Made a Full Comeback?

People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok (center left), and PPP presidential candidate contender, former Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl (center right), pose with supporters in Gwangjin District, Seou

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ 고려

In recent years, South Korea’s conservative party has gone through devastating political turmoil. Following the political scandal that led to the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, the conservatives lost public trust and have been defeated in every election since. But in recent months, the party – now rebranded as the People Power Party (PPP) – has regained momentum. The PPP claimed its first electoral win in the April by-elections for the Seoul and Busan mayoral posts, and has caught up with President Moon Jae-in’s progressive Democratic Party in approval rating.

Broadly, the conservative party’s resurgence can be attributed to expanded support from moderate swing voters. According to a Seoul National University study, South Korea’s ideological landscape displays a 5:3:2 ratio between moderates, progressives, and conservatives. Reflecting that number, the Democratic Party’s approval rating has rarely dipped under 30 percent, even in their downtimes, and the People Power Party’s rating mostly hung around the low 20s until recent months. Therefore, there is largely one explanation as to how the PPP bounced back: more support from the moderate base.

What could this mean for the upcoming 2022 presidential election?

The Conservative Resurgence and the 2022 Presidential Election

Moderate voters are leaning toward the right for several reasons, including dissatisfaction with the current progressive government’s perceived underperformance, as well as the conservative party’s reform and rebranding. In recent years, public frustration with the Moon administration and the Democratic Party’s failure to address skyrocketing housing prices has cost the current government support. This year’s land speculation scandal involving officials at state housing developer Korea Land and Housing Corporation further damaged the Moon administration. After evidence surfaced that government officials were taking advantage of inflated real estate prices while failing to resolve the problem, the PPP’s approval rating jumped significantly while the Democratic Party’s reputation fell.

Additionally, though the Moon administration’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic garnered strong public support, relative struggles in responding to emerging variants have been a challenge lately. Public approval of the Moon administration’s pandemic management, once as high as 85 percent in 2020, has dropped to 54 percent. Continued underperformance in this regard could harm the reputation of Moon and his party going into the 2022 election.

While the Democratic Party has been losing face in the public eye, the PPP has been working simultaneously to neutralize its far-right image and rebrand itself as a more inclusive, approachable party. The party’s far-right politics dissuaded many moderate voters from supporting the PPP even when they were unhappy with the progressive government. Only after a defeat in the 2020 National Assembly election did the conservatives realize the need for rebranding. They publicly apologized for the wrongdoings of imprisoned presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, tried to downgrade their longstanding regional prejudice against the traditionally progressive Jeolla province by adopting a more inclusive candidate selection policy, and (most notably) have empowered younger politicians.

Empowering young politicians, especially appointing 36-year-old Lee Jun-seok as the party chairperson, was a strategic move to impress the public, as polling showed 90 percent of South Koreans want greater generational diversity in politics. Aside from his youth, the party capitalized on Lee’s relatively moderate political stance. At the start of the Park Geun-hye scandal, Lee was among the few conservative politicians that strongly refuted Park and left the party in an attempt to establish a more moderate right-wing coalition. Although the attempt failed and they eventually returned to the People Power Party, Lee and the rest of the minority faction managed to attain a less extreme image. After returning to the main conservative party, Lee stayed away from far-right politics and even fought against it, recently rebuking a conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party stole the 2020 National Assembly election.

But despite the progressive government’s underperformance, whether the conservative party’s efforts to rebrand and reform will be enough to attract moderate voters in the 2022 election remains to be seen.

Challenges Ahead: Developing a Moderate-Conservative Agenda and Abandoning Radical Populism

Despite some positive developments, the PPP is still just halfway through its rebranding process. Efforts to erase their outdated, far-right image have left a good impression on voters, but without enacting more tolerant philosophies and policies, the conservatives may lose the support of moderates. Some conservative politicians recognize that their party can no longer neglect important national issues such as preventing social discrimination, raising the minimum wage, and fighting climate change simply because these issues tend to be viewed as progressive in nature. Trying to impress only the right-wing audience would likely lead to electoral failure given that the combined moderate and progressive support bases greatly outsize that of the conservatives. A nuanced and depoliticized conservative agenda may be key to electoral success going forward.

In addition, the People Power Party may have a better chance of keeping moderate voters on its side if it stays away from radical populist politics, such as overexaggerating the “China threat“ or justifying anti-feminism. In recent years, South Korean conservatives branded themselves as China hawks to exploit their country’s strong Sinophobia and garner support for the party. But this strategy gives voice to racism and discrimination within the party. For example, conservative politicians have made derogatory statements related to Joseon-jok (Korean Chinese) migrants, such as falsely blaming Joseon-jok’s pro-progressive voting behavior for an election defeat, or condemning a governmental proposal to ease naturalization requirements for children of long-term foreign residents because it would bring in more Joseon-jok and “Sinicize“ South Korea. One conservative politician even tweeted that he doesn’t want to live with Chinese people in the same country. This inflammatory rhetoric could drive moderates away from the PPP.

When it comes to South Korea’s China policy, there is a clear difference between hawkishness and boldness. South Koreans wouldn’t want their government to look vulnerable facing Beijing’s assertiveness, and advocating for a bolder approach in this regard could appeal to the public. But excessive hawkishness would not help the PPP in the 2022 election. Despite their Sinophobia, numerous South Koreans find bilateral strategic cooperation with China on issues related to the economy and North Korea important. Regardless of how they perceive China’s rise, South Koreans generally believe that their government should take a careful approach to the intensifying China-U.S. strategic rivalry. On the issue of China, voters in the 2022 election are more likely to be attracted to a candidate who appears as a rational decision-maker that acts according to national interests, not one that reacts to over-inflated threat perception.

The People Power Party has also made a questionable decision to embrace young misogynists’ demonization of feminism to gain their political support. South Korean “yi-dae-nam” (Gen Z men) are particularly hostile toward their country’s growing women’s rights activism, with 76 percent opposing feminism. The resistance to feminism largely stems from the notion of reverse sexism, which gives rise to the idea that South Korea’s overwhelming gender disparity and glass ceiling phenomena no longer exist and that men are victims of women-friendly government policies. Unsurprisingly, South Korean Gen Z men have become the staunchest opponents of the feminism-friendly progressive party; about 73 percent of Gen Z men voted conservative in this year’s Seoul mayoral election.

Representing the interests of the sharply right-leaning Gen Z men has become politically important for the PPP, and conservative leaders have attempted to do so by justifying anti-feminism. For example, the young leader Lee Jun-seok has criticized the Democratic Party for being too women-friendly and advocated removing female quotas in politics and other fields like STEM education, claiming that structural gender inequality is nonexistent. Conservative presidential candidates have also made questionable statements on gender equality, such as claiming that South Korea needs “humanism, not feminism,” vowing to dismantle the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, and arguing that feminism causes low birth rates as it hinders young men and women from having proper relationships.

The anti-feminist approach, however, has been largely counterproductive. It has attracted Gen Z men but not as many Millennial men, and the vast majority of Gen Z and Millennial women lean progressive as a result. Without depoliticizing gender equality and demonstrating some care for women’s empowerment, the People Power Party will have difficulty attracting female voters.

With the 2022 election just a few months away and the conservative presidential primary kicking off now, the PPP is entering a critical juncture. It should be presenting the most appealing version of itself to the public: a reliable and capable moderate-right coalition. Developing a more tolerant and inclusive agenda and abandoning radical right-wing populist rhetoric could effectively do the job. And the final conservative candidate should ideally be one that best represents the party’s transition to the center-right.

Even though more South Koreans feel skeptical about another progressive rule, their concern has yet to fully translate into support for conservatives. Despite various struggles, Moon Jae-in’s approval rating is continually hovering around 40 percent, making him the most popular lame duck president in South Korean political history. The Democratic Party and its progressive presidential candidate, Lee Jae-myung, remain highly competitive, with a strong core support base. South Korean conservatives have brought themselves back into the game, but without promising philosophies and policies, they could be playing a tough match in next year’s big race.