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Understanding Satellite Parties in South Korea and Their Dangers to Democracy

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The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

Understanding Satellite Parties in South Korea and Their Dangers to Democracy

In South Korea, major political forces make strategic use of satellite parties to exploit the semi-mixed-member proportional representation system.

Understanding Satellite Parties in South Korea and Their Dangers to Democracy
Credit: Depositphotos

On February 23, the People’s Power Party’s interim leader, former Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, graced the inauguration of the People’s Future Party, a satellite entity of the PPP, geared toward the forthcoming National Assembly election in April 2024. Han vowed to be the foremost supporter of this newly minted party, pledging to combat what he described as the “legislative dictatorship” wielded by the Democratic Party (DP) and its allies on the left. 

Observers unfamiliar with the intricacies of South Korean politics might wonder why the leader of the ruling party is championing an apparently separate political group. The reason is nuanced: Han remains in the leadership of the PPP but is also committed to ensuring the People’s Future Party secures as many legislative seats as possible in the next election. This strategy stems from the party’s role as a “satellite party” to the PPP, which will abstain from contesting for proportional representation seats awarded to parties in the election. Instead, several PPP members will join the adjunct PFP, which will seek votes on the party list ballot. 

The use of satellite parties is a tactic also employed by the DP to enhance their presence in the assembly via the proportional representation vote.

What Is South Korea’s Semi Mixed-Member Proportional System?

South Korea’s National Assembly election in April 2024 will adopt a “semi-mixed-member proportional representation system.” This system allocates a portion of the seats based on party votes rather than individual candidate votes across electoral districts. Out of 300 legislative seats, 47 will be distributed through this proportional representation system, with the remaining 253 filled through direct district-level voting. On April 10, voters will be handed two ballots: one for district candidates and a green ballot for party preference, which will determine the allocation of the 47 seats under the mixed-member proportional representation system.

However, the allocation of the 47 seats is not determined solely by each party’s final vote share. Instead, these seats are awarded to parties when the number of legislative seats won through district-wise elections does not align with the support they received in the party preference ballot. This is determined by a calculation: halving the party’s vote share and then multiplying it by 300. This approach sets it apart from a “full” mixed-member proportional representation system, where the voting share is not halved.

For example, if Party A secures 120 seats through direct regional elections and receives 40 percent of the support in the party-wise election, it would not gain any “additional seats,” as its representation in the National Assembly accurately mirrors the public’s overall support for the party. Conversely, if the number of seats won through candidate-wise elections by a party falls short of its total party support, it will receive seats to fill half of this discrepancy. So if Party B won 10 percent support in the party ballot but no candidate from Party B won any district races, it would receive 15 seats as proportional representation (10 percent divided in half is 5 percent, or 0.05. 300 x 0.05 = 15).

In theory, this mechanism offers smaller parties, which may be popular among voters but unable to secure electoral seats in head-to-head races, a significant opportunity to increase their representation in the legislature. The prevailing local election system tends to marginalize candidates from smaller parties, given that the two major parties command a strong base of core supporters. The PPP and DP each account for approximately 30 percent of the electorate, excluding regions with strong political leanings such as TK (Daegu-North Gyeongsang Province) for conservatives and Gwangju-Jeonlla Province for progressives.

In the 2020 election, only six candidates (one from the far-left Justice Party and five independents) managed to win district-wise elections out of 253 seats. A recent survey by leading pollster RealMeter revealed that approximately 83 percent of voters support either the PPP or DP, with independents as the third most popular choice, accounting for 5.9 percent of total responses. 

In fourth place was the newly established New Reform Party, led by former PPP chairman Lee Jun-seok, which garnered only 4.3 percent support, significantly below the threshold needed for a party candidate to win a seat against members from the two major parties. Should the New Reform Party maintain at least 4 percent support up to the April election, however, it stands to gain six seats in the National Assembly despite potentially losing every district-wise election. However, the party must pass the 3 percent threshold to qualify for these seats.

Two Major Parties and the Systematic Loophole

Meanwhile, the two leading parties are unlikely to secure additional members through the party-list election. As of February 23, the Democratic Party holds 161 seats in the National Assembly (54 percent of seats), with the ruling People’s Power Party behind at 113 seats (38 percent). The DP’s representation significantly outstrips the 30 to 40 percent support they currently enjoy, while the PPP’s share closely aligns with their peak support as per the latest Korea Gallup Poll (37 percent). If these polling trends persist until the election, neither party will be able to achieve a majority on their own, necessitating negotiations with smaller coalitions and parties. This could lead to situations where crucial legislation is easily compromised. 

This is where satellite parties come in. Although these parties are officially separate from the two main parties, they typically consist of members who have temporarily departed from their original party for the National Assembly election period, only to rejoin after the election. By registering these satellite parties – recognized as separate entities but functionally identical – in the party-list election, the major parties, such as the PPP and DP, can gain additional seats. 

Satellite parties do not contest elections for the 253 local district seats. Instead, they compete for seats in the party-list election on behalf of the major parties. After the election, having secured some of the 47 proportional representation seats, these satellite entities dissolve and merge back into their original party. Utilizing this strategy in the previous election, the DP gained 17 new seats via the “Platform Party,” which existed for a mere three months, while the United Future Party, the PPP’s predecessor, secured 19 seats through its satellite party.

The United Future Party initially opposed the additional member system in the 2020 National Assembly election. They feared that a large left-leaning coalition led by the DP would dominate the seats allocated through this system. But the party soon worked out the initiative of employing satellite parties as a workaround. This approach is expected to continue in the 2024 election, with DP leader Lee Jae-myung formalizing plans to establish a satellite party and potentially merge it with other minor parties on the left, including the Progressive Party.

The Risk of Continued Exploitation 

While the two major factions exploit the electoral system, there are no legal means to prevent this. If this trend persists, the voices of smaller parties and the minorities they represent will continue to be marginalized, calling into question the effectiveness of the system’s establishment. The most viable option for smaller parties is to align with the coalitions led by the two major groups, advocating for their members to be placed in favorable positions on the proportional representation candidate list to enhance their chances of securing seats in the National Assembly.

A strong third force, akin to Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party in 2016, could potentially invigorate the system. While in their early stages, newly formed parties are already challenging the entrenched polarization of Korean politics. These include the New Reform Party by Lee Jun-seok, the New Future Party by former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, and the new initiative by former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who still faces legal challenges for falsifying official documents for his children’s college admissions. 

While not the current majority opinion, the ongoing political strategies of the two dominant parties and increasing polarization could inadvertently bolster support for these emerging alternatives in the upcoming election. The recent exclusion of incumbent legislators by the major parties during the nomination process is another critical factor that could signify potential changes in political dynamics.

Rather than adhering to a strategy of tit-for-tat, what is needed is a leadership that dares to call for substantial reforms to the currently dysfunctional system. Various alternatives, including the adoption of a full mixed-member proportional representation system to include more underrepresented voices, or the complete abolition of the proportional representation system in favor of local elections that better reflect local needs and sentiments, are worthy of consideration. Whichever path is chosen, it should be motivated by a genuine desire to enhance South Korean politics and more accurately reflect the will of the people. Political maneuvering for seats, as witnessed in recent elections, should not overshadow the quest for improvements in the highly polarized political landscape of South Korea, which has left many citizens disillusioned. 

Political machinations and schemes will only exacerbate Korean voters’ dissatisfaction with the political landscape. If politicians fail to initiate change, it falls upon South Korean citizens, who are experiencing significant political fatigue, to alter the course through their votes in the upcoming election – exerting political pressure on legislators to transform the current state of affairs.