On 15 April 2020, South Korea will hold its 21st parliamentary elections. In the pre-Covid-19 era the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and opposition United Future Party (UFP) were ready to contest elections based on their policy agenda. The former advocated completing the ‘Candlelight vigils reforms’, whereas the latter called for an assessment or even indictment of the economic and foreign policies of the Moon Jae-in administration. New electoral laws were passed in December 2019 in an attempt to overcome some of the more persisting features of the Korean party system, most importantly the presence of two dominant parties and move towards a real multi-party system. Instead, the campaign has been dominated by the Coronavirus pandemic, its impact on Korean society and the economy, the way in which President Moon Jae-in’s administration has handled it, and the public’s perception of it. But will Moon’s legacy as president will also be defined by the crisis?
Development of the party system since democratization
South Korea’s modern political history is shaped by the combined legacy of colonial rule (1910-45), authoritarianism, and state-led economic development since the 1960s. Neo-liberal economic reforms have followed the 1997 Asian financial crisis, reshaping the Korean economy and society.
Three features have defined the party system since democratization took pace in 1987:
- Though formally a multi-party system, two parties, conservative and progressive, have dominated the political scene.
- Korean parties have been prone to fission and fusion, with splinter groups breaking away from the bigger groupings and later merging with other smaller parties to form new parties. Because governments need to secure a majority in parliament this has resulted in electoral coalitions of rather unstable character, ultimately jeopardising the country’s governability.
- Regionalism has been an important, if not the most important political cleavage in Korean elections and a strong predictor of voting behaviour. South West Honam province has been a loyal stronghold of the progressive party (the Democratic party and its earlier incarnations with different names), whereas conservatives have been able to draw on strong support from the South East Youngnam province. In policy terms, progressives are keener on engaging with North Korea, and tackling income and wealth inequality and social polarization, whilst conservatives have emphasised the importance of retaining strong alliances with the United States and Japan and maintaining Chaebol-friendly policies.
Besides regional divisions, new emerging cleavages include generational differences – with older voters favouring conservatives -, wealth and income, and gender (with female voters favouring progressive parties).
The upcoming elections and the new electoral laws
In these elections the progressive DP is led by Lee Hae-Chan, whereas the conservative UNFP is headed by Hwang Kyo-Ahn. Smaller parties include the People Party (Ahn Chol-soo), the leftist Mingjung Party, and the Party for People Livelihood, the Justice Party (Sim Sang-jung) and the Open Democrats. The two dominant parties have established their respective satellite parties (Party for Citizens for the DP and Future Korea Party for UFP) to ensure that they gain seats for the proportional representation part of the seats distribution.
In an attempt to mitigate the effects of regionalism, compounded by a first-past-the-post electoral system, the Moon administration introduced two new electoral laws in 2019. The first lowered the legal voting age from 19 to 18 years old, which is when high school graduates enter universities. The second introduced a hybrid mixed-member proportional system (MMP). This replaced the previous system, according to which voters had two votes, one for the candidate elected directed through the FPTP (253 seats) and one for close party lists (47, allocated through PR). The new system – which still grants voters two votes – modifies the logic of the distribution of 30 of these 47 seats according to a more compensatory system which should enhance the representation of parties that despite gaining votes in the single-seat constituencies fail none the less to gain seats in the MMP portion. In the bigger scheme of things the reform would have paved way for a true multi-party system, fairer and more representative. After a year of wrangling inside parliament (including filibustering by the opposition party) and protests outside, the reform was eventually passed in December 2019. However, the current version of the law allowed the dominant party to cushion its effects, but enabling them to set up ‘satellite parties’, formally separate organizations that would run with the purpose of gaining seats for the larger unit which otherwise would be lost in the PR lists. The conservative party first set up its own satellite party (Future Korea Party), amidst uproar from the ruling party ranks, only to be followed by a similar move (Party for Citizens).
The Coronavirus elections and its implications
Like anyone else in the world today, Korea has been confronted with a severe public health crisis as a result of the covid-19 pandemic from mid-February onwards. Criticism of the government from the opposition ranks encompass its initial response which did not involve closing returns from Wuhan in January or the initial inability by the ‘disaster control tower’ to contain size and pace of infection low. After this initial hesitation the government has deployed mass testing, contact tracing and surveillance through mobile applications in a multipronged strategy that has earned Korea wide applause globally. Inevitably, this has earned the authorities significant political capital. If the health crisis seems to be contained for the time being, the economic fall-out remains considerable. In the immediate the government, prompted by initiatives at city and regional level, has considered providing its citizens with a form of basic universal income. With just a week to go before the elections the two main parties are arguing over the size of what has been called a basic disaster allowance. The opposition United Future Party proposed offering 500,000 won to every citizen, with the Democratic party claiming it would increase this to one million won to each household. Yoo Seong-min, a leading conservative politician, harshly criticised such policy proposal as a form of electoral populism, as no-one seems to clarify where exactly in the budget the funds would be found.
The latest polls reveal support for the Moon administration and the ruling party. This is important to the Moon administration for two reasons. One, its flagship electoral reform has lost its shine as a result of over a year of wrangling between political parties so that the initial goal of ‘opening up’ the political system by favouring greater representation of traditionally less visible or discriminated groups such as women, migrant and irregular workers, LGBTI, youth and refugees has been diluted in practice, as the dominant parties have set up their satellite groups to cushion the impact of the (minor) change in the electoral law. Two, the global depression likely to follow the covid-19 pandemic would be very difficult task for the government to handle as such recession will not be solely dependent on Korea but globally interwoven economy. This raises questions about how the Moon administration will seek to secure its legacy of completing the candlelight vigils reform in terms of reducing socio-economic inequality in Korea.
Although the campaign has been overshadowed by the Covid-19 crisis, the elections will also signal who is best positioned to win the 2022 presidential elections. In a semi-presidential system winning parliamentary elections is important as governability hinges on having a parliamentary majority, but presidential elections tend to be the more consequential of the electoral rounds as in Korea it is the president that, in a dual executive, steers policy. President Moon and his allies in parliament will need to show that they are able to navigate the very stormy waters of an intertwined public health, economic and social crisis.