Insights and Analysis

Korea Election: A Litmus Test of the System

May 17, 2017

By Tim Meisburger

On May 9, after more than six months of massive political demonstrations, public turmoil, and an impeachment, Koreans elected Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in as their new president. While the snap election was of unusual significance for Koreans for a number of reasons, it also provided a model for other countries on how a political crisis can be managed legally and peacefully in an effective democracy.

Moon Jae-in

On May 9, after more than six months of massive political demonstrations, public turmoil, and an impeachment, Koreans elected Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in as their new president. Photo/Flickr user Republic of Korea

The political crisis began when then president, Park Geun-hye from the conservative Saenuri Party, became enmeshed in an influence-peddling scheme with a close friend (Choi Soon-sil), and senior officials of one of the wealthy and powerful family-run conglomerates (called chaebol) that have dominated Korea’s economy for decades. The chaebol are believed to have had significant influence on successive governments, and there has been growing public demand for reform. Korea has long been known as one of the strongest democracies in Asia, so the scandal led some to ask: how did it all go wrong? But in fact, it did not “go wrong.” The last six months have, if anything, been a convincing demonstration of the maturation and strength of Korean democracy, a litmus test of the system.

For the first time in Korea’s young democracy, the president was peacefully removed from office and a successor was swiftly elected through a process accepted by most as legitimate and proper. [Here’s a look at Election Day in photos from last week’s blog.] The unprecedented impeachment and dismissal of the president and the limitation of the power of the chaebol, proved the ability of ordinary citizens to influence government—albeit through an informal process. The ability of the courts to remove the president, which many thought was impossible, demonstrated the independence of Korea’s legal institutions and primacy of rule of law.

Korea election

Protestors in Seoul surrounding the removal of former president, Park Geun-hye.

The election was also significant because it signaled a radical shift in public policy. While some attribute Moon Jae-in’s landslide victory as a reaction to the scandal-plagued previous government, his left-leaning Democratic Party (along with the centrist People’s Party) also won the National Assembly elections last year. Others argue that his victory was due to a generational shift in the political center of gravity from the right toward the left, or simply part of a normal political cycle that has shifted control of government every decade for the past 30 years.

The new administration has promised a number of reforms, including reforming the chaebol system. Perhaps even more significantly, they have vowed to re-start a dialog with North Korea, following the Sunshine Policy pursued by the previous Democratic Party government from 1998 to 2008.

I observed this historic election first hand as a participant in the International Election Visitor Program sponsored by the Korean National Election Commission (NEC), and the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB)—headquartered in Incheon. The program brought together over a hundred election professionals from across the world to study the Korean election process and to share their own experiences and best practices. The program takes an innovative approach to strengthening the quality of elections through peer-to-peer exchange—an effective alternative to traditional methods where developed western democracies seek to “build the capacity” of less developed countries.

The holistic approach allowed a constructive, side-by-side comparison of participants’ home country approaches to the effective Korean processes, thus sparking many interesting insights and discussions that I am sure will lead to home country reforms.

The eight-day program also included the annual Seoul International Forum on Elections, a one-day conference sponsored by A-WEB and the NEC, where established experts in the field come together to discuss issues related to election management, share ideas and debate how to make elections around the world cleaner, fairer and more inclusive. The themes of the forum this year were particularly relevant and interesting:

Expanding the Freedom of Expression in Politics: Potential Measures and Challenges
Around the world, countries and governments face new challenges to freedom of expression, particularly related to the internet and social media. In some countries, the space for political expression is shrinking as authoritarian governments seek to limit citizens’ access to the internet or censor online content. Other countries are increasingly plagued by online trolls that seek to influence policy and public perception through “fake news.” In this session, participants discussed how election commissions could contribute to an environment that fosters free and substantive political expression.

Current Trends and Measures to Develop Policy-Focused Elections
Studies have shown that voters are more likely to participate, and governance outcomes likely to improve, when parties and candidates compete on substantive issues. This session focused on ways election commissions could foster more policy-focused elections, including through the sponsorship of broadcast debates and forums, and online or print voter guides.

Improving Civic Participation in Politics and Elections for the Development of Democracy
The primary focus of this session was on methods to “get out the vote” (i.e., increase voter turnout), but also included illuminating discussions of alternative formal means of citizen participation. This includes advocacy groups, political parties, and NGOs, as well as non-formal means of participation, such as protests and demonstrations.

I presented (available here in English and Korean) on how an increase in informal participation is an indication that formal means of participation alone are no longer adequate or effective. For example, growing frustration with the quality of formal representation in long-established democracies has led to the rapid spread of populist movements, and has sparked crises of legitimacy that have yet to be resolved.

Korea also provides an example of the influential role informal participation can have, but with a more positive outcome. The Korean government’s inability to reform the chaebol and root out corruption helped push protesters into the street; an informal means of participation, but the strength and resilience of Korea’s democratic institutions enabled the country to resolve the crisis through a formal process (an election).

Although the visitor program was a great success, the most valuable takeaway may be this final image of Korea. A modern, messy, far from perfect democracy, whose people love democracy, and who struggle together to overcome any obstacle to achieve it. In an age where some question the value of democracy, Korea provides a shining example, in its processes, institutions, and people, that other countries can admire and seek to emulate.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for Elections and Political Processes. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.

Related locations: Korea
Related programs: Good Governance, Regional and International Relations
Related topics: Elections


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