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Korea Elections: A Shocking Eruption of Public Dissatisfaction

April 27, 2016

By Kim Kyoungtae

Voting officially closed at 6 p.m. for Korea’s April 13 general elections, but 30 minutes earlier, I received the early exit poll results from a joint poll conducted among three major national networks including my company, MBC, where I head the evening news desk. The poll surveyed 800,000 voters in 2,600 balloting stations across the country. As we tallied the numbers, the result on my computer screen was shocking, revealing a total defeat for the ruling Saenuri Party. Prior to the election, opinion polls foretold that the Saenuri Party, led by President Park Geun-hye would sweep the election. The results, therefore, were hard to believe.

For the first time in 16 years, the ruling Saenuri Party, led by President Park Geun-hye, failed to retain a parliamentary majority in general elections. Photo/Flickr user Republic of Korea

For the first time in 16 years, the ruling Saenuri Party, led by President Park Geun-hye, failed to retain a parliamentary majority in general elections. Photo/Flickr user Republic of Korea

For the first time in 16 years, the ruling party failed to retain a parliamentary majority of 150, walking away with only 122 seats, down from the 152 it held prior to the election. Among the eight members of the Supreme Council of the Saenuri Party, more than half of them failed to be re-elected. As for the ruling party, a dark cloud is cast over not only its present influence, but also its future, as parliamentary elections are seen as a predictor of the outcome of the presidential elections for December 2017. Prior to the parliamentary election, there were three candidates Kim Moo-sung (Saenuri Party chief), Oh Se-hoon (former Seoul mayor), and Kim Moon-soo (former Gyeonggi governor), widely viewed as possible presidential hopefuls, but the result of this election darkened their chances. The Saenuri Party chief offered his resignation in response to his party’s crushing election loss; while the other two candidates – who were members of Parliament – were defeated in the election.

As the surprising upset of the Saenuri Party sunk in, the news coverage shifted to focus on the factors in Korea’s society that led to such a defeat, with headlines such as “Korea undergoing a generational transition” taking the lead.

The result of this general election clearly indicates that what Koreans really want most is change and better opportunities. The election was an eruption of public dissatisfaction with current politics and the deepening economic hardship such as youth unemployment (which reached 12.5% in February), skyrocketing household debt, unaffordable housing, and an alarming aging population who lack enough in savings for a proper retirement (nearly half of the nation’s elderly live in poverty, the highest among OECD countries). Even the series of threats and provocations posed by North Korea during the campaign period could not distract public anger away from what was perceived as the government’s ineffectiveness at addressing these problems.

In fact, Korea’s economic woes are closely related with the global economic downturn. As a result, there was no policy debate nor agenda that attracted public attention in this election campaign. From the people’s point of view, however, the politicians were seen as disregarding voters’ request for change and reform. As a result, the ruling party seems to have become a scapegoat in these elections for all the dissatisfaction and blame to the existing political parties.

The unfulfilled public agenda will no doubt be the biggest issue of the 2017 presidential election. Given the scale and complexity of the issues, it will be impossible for the current government to implement a policy that could bring about instant change or reform. In fact, it is even more difficult to present a definite blueprint to bring the nation’s sluggish economy back on track in near future. For example, look at South Korea’s shipbuilding industry. Last year it handed the number one position in the world – which South Korea had maintained since 2000 – over to China. The “Big Three” shipyards, namely, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Samsung Heavy Industries, and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, suffered a combined loss of $7.22 billion last year. Therefore, massive layoff seems inevitable this year, but there is almost nothing the Korean government, a particular candidate, or a political party can do to prevent or solve this problem in the immediate, as these setbacks in the industry mainly stem from drop in international oil prices and cancelation of orders for off-shore plants.

Thus, it is highly possible that next year’s presidential election in Korea may become an image-driven election. There might be intense competition among candidates to appeal to the public that they are suitable leaders for change, even if they have no specific and feasible policy nor clear blueprint to achieve their objectives. In this case, it’s likely that younger candidates will appeal far more with the image of change and reform that the public wants, and will therefore likely have the upper hand over their older rivals. We’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon in Europe recently, where newly elected leaders of Belgium, Italy, Greece, and Poland have led with strong images of youth and campaign messages of reform and change.

Voter turnout in the general election reached 58 percent, the highest since 1996. Especially notable is that the high turnout was mainly attributable to the increased voting by those in their 20s and 30s – an age group that historically has very low voter turnout in Korea. If this trend continues in next year’s presidential election, the increase in the number of dissatisfied young voters could likely play an important role as a driving force to accelerate the generational transition in Korea.

Kim Kyoungtae, editor at Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation in Seoul, is a leading political commentator in Korea. He is also 2017 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, sponsored by The Asia Foundation with support from the Sungkok Journalism Foundation and YBM, Inc. He can be reached at imktkim@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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