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The Realignment of Korean Politics


By Thomas Lee

In the wake of the 20th legislative elections on April 13th, the Minjoo Party edged out the conservative Saenuri Party to win the slimmest possible majority of one. This has been hailed as a revolution as this was the first instance in South Korean history of a ruling party with a sitting president in power losing the majority in the National Assembly. Add to the mix the liberal split and President Park Geun Hye’s reputation as the “election queen,” and this loss is even more stunning for the Saenuri Party.

The Saenuri Party lost its strongholds of Seoul, Daegu, Busan, and Ulsan. Seoul in particular was lost to the Minjoo while the others were split between Minjoo, independent, and former Saenuri representatives. The People’s Party in turn swept the Minjoo out of Honam (Gwangju and the Jeolla Provinces). Discontent with the ruling party, especially with young voters, who surged to the ballot box, denied the Saenuri the predicted gain in seats. At the same time, with the Minjoo spending most of its time attempting to win the capital and the southeast, discontent likewise evicted the Minjoo from its own former regional stronghold. Although the Minjoo Party gained in the National Assembly, people voted for it not because they suddenly favored the Minjoo, but because they were voting against the Saenuri Party. This was a painful setback for both the conservative and opposition parties.

Chart Korean Voters

NA Voting Map

The idea of a third party that operates beyond the traditional framework of the entrenched two-party system resounds within South Korea’s electorate. Nearly doubling its number of seats to 38, the People’s Party has gained considerable power and has set the Party up as a potential kingmaker, as the number of seats between the two traditional parties are almost neatly split.

That is not to say that the People’s Party won. Yes, this was a major victory and the Party became an undeniable force, but looking at the spread of seats that it holds, the People’s Party cannot claim to be a centrist party as Ahn Cheol-soo desired, but a Homan faction. Ahn’s plans called for a wave of support from citizens at the ballot booth who identified with equality, justice, and a fresh start. This would have translated into support from people all over the nation who were tired of traditional regionalism. This simply did not materialize.

This shows that although the South Korean electorate would like to see the values that Ahn himself personally came to represent materialize on the political stage, they believe that he would have been unable to bring about this change and that his party is not the  vehicle to do so. His party’s success has stemmed more from disapproval of the Minjoo party than zeal for his party’s values.

While the 20th National Assembly is beginning afresh, Ahn Cheol-soo found himself wedged between a plummeting Party approval rating and allegations of corruption involving some of Ahn’s closest aides. From an internal struggle on whether to merge with the Minjoo Party or not, to remarks about allying with the Saenuri Party to deny the opposition party the speakership, to controversial statements made by Ahn himself, the People’s Party was struggling to gain a foothold and now the resignations of Ahn Cheol-soo and party co-founder Chun Jung-bae put its future in doubt. The party’s difficulties should have been expected, taking into account that the southwest region has detested conservative factions since the 1960s, and that a number of lawmakers in the National Assembly harbor a shady past.

With the Minjoo Party regaining ground in the Honam region and President Park’s  approval rating rising  due to her achievements in international relations and diplomacy any third party would have an uphill battle ahead of it.  In the meantime, whether and how United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon enters the race for the Presidency is the biggest question in Korean politics.

Thomas Lee is a former intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of American University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from daumdna’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.