South Korea’s Quest for Viable Third Parties

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South Korea’s Quest for Viable Third Parties

Does the country’s new crop of minor parties represent a lasting realignment, or a temporary blip?

South Korea’s Quest for Viable Third Parties

Cho Kuk, center, leader of the Rebuilding Korea Party, speaks in front of media members in Seoul, South Korea, April 11, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

South Korea’s 22nd National Assembly election ushered in a shift in the nation’s political landscape. The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) solidified its position as the dominant force, capturing 175 seats including 161 district mandates. The ruling People Power Party (PPP), by contrast, suffered a stinging rebuke, winning just 108 seats. 

Emboldened by its enlarged bloc, the DP is mobilizing to intensify its confrontation with President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration and thwart its policy initiatives. The stage appears primed for heightened legislative gridlock driven by the formidable opposition force.

Yet the vote’s most consequential development may have been the rise of the Rebuilding Korea Party, a new third force led by former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. Securing 12 seats through proportional representation, the upstart party garnered nearly 30 percent of the proportional vote – a striking debut that could herald a re-alignment in South Korea’s long two-party-dominated political order.

Other smaller parties and coalitions also jockeyed for influence, with the Reform Party under former PPP chair Lee Jun-seok earning three seats, while the New Future Party led by former prime minister Lee Nak-yon garnered only a single seat.  Meanwhile, the previous liberal coalition between the DP and other progressive groups dissolved, with its remnants redistributing seats to allied parties like the Progressives and Social Democrats.

But considering the historical bar for what constitutes a genuine “third force” capable of disrupting the nation’s bipartisan trajectory, it remains unclear whether this new crop of minor parties represents a lasting realignment or a temporary blip. 

Traditionally, to be viewed as a viable third force, new movements have needed to position themselves as ideologically centrist, transcending traditional partisan divides. Prominent past examples meeting this criteria include the Unification National Party in 1992, the United Liberal Democrats in 1996, and the People’s Party in 2016 – all of which secured over 30 seats. 

With that context in mind, the Rebuilding Korea Party’s perceived ties to the Democratic Party could undermine its credibility as a distinct third force.

The Independent Voter Paradox

However, even if one considers the RKP a third force – an assessment that may evolve based on its strategic alignment in the new National Assembly – the combined vote share and seats secured by parties outside the two major blocs fell short of the sizable independent voter bloc in South Korean politics. Multiple polls conducted by RealMeter and Hankuk Gallup, spanning September 2023 to the post-election period, consistently showed that the independent voter segment in polls exceeded the actual support garnered by these smaller parties in the recent election.

Four reasons could explain this discrepancy. First, the two dominant camps exerted a gravitational pull as election day neared. In 2024, voter mobilization coalesced around either punishing or endorsing the incumbent Yoon administration, according to polls showing a consistent decline in support for independent factions. 

Made with Flourish

Early on in the election, no third party managed to field district candidates outpolling the two leading contenders from major forces. Seeing this disappointing early performance, independent voters became increasingly wary of wasting their ballots. During the campaign, the narratives coming from smaller parties were also not hugely different from that of the DP, calling for punishment of the Yoon government. This left voters with questions on how the smaller parties are truly different from, or even better than, the main opposition. 

This failure to distinguish themselves from established parties raised doubts about the unique selling point allegedly offered by new third forces in South Korea’s polarized politics. Ultimately, none garnered sufficient support to capture more than a single directly elected district seat. 

Second, the smaller parties were unable to establish strong regional bases of support. Historically, successful third forces like the Unification National Party, United Liberal Democrats, and the People’s Party have drawn on geographic strongholds to secure parliamentary seats through direct district races rather than just proportional representation lists. The Unification National Party held sway in Gangwon and Chungcheong, the Liberal Democrats dominated Chungcheong and Daegu, and Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party found a base in Honam Province.

For each of these previous third force breakthroughs, at least two-thirds of their National Assembly seats derived from triumphs in specific districts rather than the proportional race. This year, however, only three candidates from outside the two major parties managed district-level victories out of 254 constituencies, underscoring the absence of robust regional footholds for the new minor parties. The Rebuilding Korea Party had modest strength in the traditionally progressive Honam region yet chose not to field district candidates there, missing on a key opportunity.

Third, the internal rift between smaller parties further impeded the third force’s quest for relevance. The short-lived merger – and subsequent dramatic divorce – between the Reform Party and New Future Party dashed hopes among independents that a consolidated “big tent” movement could catalyze change. The two groups’ public criticisms over a lack of vision reinforced perceptions that they offered little distinct from the establishment alternatives. In the end, they failed to convert disaffected voters fatigued by partisan bickering. 

Consequently, the Reform Party’s support was practically halved from a high of nearly 10 percent, as it struggled to persuade younger cohorts skeptical of the political status quo despite pre-election polls showing a third of voters under 40 remained undecided. 

Finally, South Korea’s semi-mixed proportional representation system also limited third-party gains – despite being originally created for smaller parties to gain more seats in the legislature. Major parties created temporary satellite entities to maximize seat allocation from the 47 seats up for grabs in the proportional competition. These structural impediments left the new third force contingents with representation well below their share of nationwide support in the final seat counts.

While capturing nearly 30 percent of the proportional vote, the Rebuilding Korea Party secured just 12 assembly seats. Meanwhile, the Reform Party won only 2 seats despite polling at nearly 3.61 percent nationally. The system’s 3 percent threshold locked out smaller groups like the New Future Party entirely.

Blueprints for a Third Force Resurgence

The failure of third forces risks even greater polarization in the National Assembly. Key figures from both the DP and PPP who inflamed divides along partisan and gender lines during the heated campaign survived, with the main opposition even more attached to its leader who mocked and demonized ruling party supporters. The situation foresees a continuation of the gridlock and dysfunction that has plagued South Korean politics.

To break this vicious cycle, third-party movements must adapt by embracing a more pragmatic, issue-focused approach attuned to the shifting preferences of independent voters. Rather than ideological appeals, these groups should differentiate themselves by campaigning on innovative policy solutions resonating with this pivotal constituency – whether independently or through collective efforts transcending existing partisan boundaries.

For left-leaning smaller parties, there are potential benefits to coalescing into a unified negotiating group or caucus within the National Assembly. With the privileges and funding provided to formal caucuses of 20-plus lawmakers, such a grouping could create greater legislative influence. It could help broker compromises and steer policymaking toward the middle ground in the upcoming legislature. 

While not definite, nascent moves are underway in this direction, with the Rebuilding Korea, Reform, and New Future parties jointly hosting a press conference demanding a special probe into a young marine’s death and the government’s coercive interference in its investigation process. While ideological differences remain, these factions could form ad-hoc coalitions on important issues often overlooked in the main two parties’ political warfare.  

However, third parties must disperse authority and avoid overreliance on individual personalities, as one-man parties have historically struggled to sustain momentum. Ironically, the very personal popularity that initially propels these movements into the political mainstream can also precipitate their downfall, as evidenced by the legal risks surrounding figures like Cho Kuk of the Rebuilding Korea Party. The rise and fall of the People’s Party can serve as a good lesson. Embracing collective leadership and issue-based platforms offers a steadier pathway for third forces to emerge as substantive alternatives. 

Should they endure and professionalize, a credible third force contingent could inject urgently needed policy centrism into South Korean politics. Their influence could compel the two major parties to moderate their stances to retain independent voters rather than just energizing base supporters through polarizing narratives as in April’s contest.

More directly, the presence of third-party kingmakers may facilitate legislative compromise when the Democratic Party lacks votes to pass bills unilaterally or undertake decisive actions like overriding vetoes. These potential powerbrokers could leverage such scenarios to represent a wider swathe of voter interests currently underserved by South Korea’s partisan duopoly, including youth, minorities, and other overlooked constituencies.

The path for South Korea’s third parties remains arduous. But by shedding ideological dogmas and embracing structural reforms, these movements could gradually erode the entrenched two-party dominance paralyzing Korean democracy – paving the way for more responsive, pluralistic governance.