Category Archives: South Korea

South Korea – Presidential Elections, May 2017

The election of Representative Moon Jae-in as president on May 9, 2017, hands the political pulpit to the liberals in the opposition, following almost a decade of conservative policies under the previous ruling party, the Liberal Korea Party (LKP). The crowded presidential contest – up to 15 candidates declared or hinted their intentions at one point, likely spurred in part by the momentum of change leading to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye – whittled down to five, from each of the parties in the legislature. Moon was elected to the presidency with 41.1 percent of the votes, ahead of runner-up Hong and the others in the race. Turnout, at 77.2 percent, is the highest in 20 years. 

Candidates Estimated popular votes
Representative Moon Jae-in, Minjoo Party 41.1 percent
Representative Hong Joon-pyo, Liberal Korea Party 24.03 percent
Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, People’s Party 21.41 percent
Representative Yoo Seung-min, Bareun Party 6.76 percent
Representative Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party 6.17 percent

Representative Moon Jae-in led the pack at the outset, but his lead was challenged regularly, first by former UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and then by his old rival-turned political partner-turned political opponent, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo. Former UN Secretary-general Ban was highly sought by the conservative parties, who saw his appeal to conservatives, moderates, and independents; early polls in December 2016 that gave Ban a lead over Moon seemed to vindicate that belief. However, that lead evaporated quickly, and Ban subsequently dropped out of the race on February 1, 2017. Both Ahn and Moon contested the 2012 presidential race, but Ahn left the race in favour of Moon to avoid splitting the liberal vote to the benefit of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye. That effort did not pay off: Park won the presidential election in 2012. In 2014, Ahn and Moon formed the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), but the alliance was fraught with problems and failed to cohere.[1] Ahn and his allies split from the NPAD in December 2015 to form the People’s Party, and went on to defy expectations by gaining 38 seats in the legislative elections held shortly after in April, 2016. Polls in early April showed Ahn gaining momentum in the race, even as Moon kept the lead; however, by late April, Moon had widened the lead over Ahn.

A large unknown in the elections is whom the conservatives in the electorate would support. The former ruling Saenuri Party splintered into the LKP and the Bareun Party in 2017: the LKP’s candidate is South Gyeongsang Province Governor Hong Joon-pyo while the Bareun Party’s candidate is Representative Yoo Seong-min. The LKP is renamed from the Saenuri Party after the Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye; it may be interesting to note that Saenuri was renamed from the Grand National Party in an effort to distance the party from a series of scandals and voter dissatisfaction with then-President Lee Myung-bak. The Bareun party comprises members of the non-Park faction, many of whom lost party nominations for the general elections in 2016 to pro-Park supporters. Both Governor Hong and Representative Yoo did not have broad appeal to the conservatives; this partly explains the effort by the conservative parties to draw Ban into the race. However, with Ban out of the race and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn’s declining to run, conservative voters began to rally around Governor Hong late in the race particularly in the traditional strongholds of former President Park Geun-hye. The endorsement of the former President’s sister, Park Geun-ryoung, for Governor Hong, may have helped increase support for Hong: in late April, polls show the candidate in second place. 13 legislators from Bareun Party left the party to return to the LKP, in order to boost the support for the conservative candidate. Importantly, that precipitated a flood of members and donations to Bareun Party, as voters express their disapproval of such politicking.

Expectations are high for the new president, particularly following the decade of conservative politics in the country that may have engendered the “imperial” presidency of former President Park Geun-hye.[2] President Moon has pledged to “yield the president’s imperial power to the people”; in addition, the president has signalled an important shift in the stance to North Korea (dialogue), while also negotiating with the US and China over the deployment of THAAD. However, the President also maintained a stance on “strong defense” for national security, perhaps to diffuse perceptions that the new administration will be soft on North-South relations, and likely also an olive branch to the conservatives in the country. On the domestic front, the president has already nominated his Prime Minister, the liberal governor of South Jeolla Province, Lee Nak-yon, an experienced public figure, and announced a presidential committee on job creation.

The President is clearly demonstrating an aptitude and preparedness to tackle the job. In the current international climate, it is certainly heartening.

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[1] Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “South Korea – Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263&cpage=1, December 16, 2015 <accessed May 10, 2017

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Presidential Profile – Park Geun-hye: The Imperial President? Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=6177, March 20, 2017 <accessed May 10, 2017>

Presidential Profile – Park Geun-hye: The Imperial President?

On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea unanimously upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Park, the first female president elected in the country, has become the first president to be ousted out of office by impeachment since democratization in 1987. The former President is now a named suspect in a criminal investigation of bribery and abuse of power. The fall from grace for Park is particularly poignant: until the Choi scandal, Park seemed to buck the trend of failing performance approvals that had afflicted her predecessors. In particular, presidents in Korea since democratization have generally entered office with high approvals but would suffer low approvals by mid-term onwards, so that they are typically characterized as “limping” out of office by the end of their respective terms. In contrast, notwithstanding recurring influence-peddling scandals among her key aides and criticisms of her unconsultative style, until the general elections in April 2016, Park was consistently able to revive falling approvals to parlay support for her into election wins for her party. Consequently, more than other presidents since 1987, Park, as “Queen of Elections,” encapsulated the “imperial president” in South Korea, i.e., the executive who successfully overrides the checks and balances by the other branches of government.[i] How that imperialism worked in practice, particularly for a single, five-year term-limited executive office, makes for interesting study.

Early life in Politics

Most are aware that Park is the eldest daughter of former strongman president Park Chung-hee, whom many Koreans credit as instrumental for putting the Korean economy on the global map. The consecutive assassinations of both parents in the 1970s left Park and her siblings socially and politically isolated for almost two decades. That changed in 1998, when Park successfully contested a legislative by-election for the Daegu seat. In 2004, Park became chair of the Grand National Party (GNP, the forerunner of the current Liberty Korea Party and its predecessor, the Saenuri Party); in that role, she eked out a 121-seat win for the scandal-hit, publicly-assailed GNP. That success cemented Park’s position as a key player in the GNP; still, she would not win the party’s nomination until 2012. That year, running on a platform of economic democracy that also championed candidate-nomination reforms to combat political corruption and transparency for accountability, Park beat out the liberal Minjoo Party’s candidate, Moon Jae-in, for the presidential office.

Presidential Years

The imperial presidency was in evidence in Park’s first year in office: her government filed a motion to dissolve the minority party, the Unified Progressive Party, with the Constitutional Court (granted in 2014) for ties with North Korea. Meanwhile, the government resisted, and then reportedly pressured, independent investigators on the role of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in the 2012 elections. When the main opposition Minjoo Party’s boycott of parliamentary proceedings for 101 consecutive days over the NIS role led to a legislative impasse, the Park government moved to temper the National Assembly Advancement law that required a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition. On February 9, 2015, an appeals court convicted the former NIS chief for meddling in the 2012 elections

Park’s second year in office witnessed the Sewol tragedy that saw more than 300 dead or missing, mostly high school students on an organized trip to the resort island of Jeju. As President, Park’s failure to take responsibility and apologize for her government’s inadequate responses – she delivered the first official apology 13 days after the incident – was topped by her resistance to a full, independent investigation of the incident.[ii] The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House over the Sewol disaster are the groundswell of the anti-Park rallies in 2016.

Park’s third and fourth years were marked by battles to shield her aides from the political fallout of the “door-knob” scandals over access to the president, and clashes within her party and with the opposition over candidate nominations and reform of that process. In these, Park wielded her presidential powers comfortably: she vetoed a parliamentary bill on the National Assembly Act that would allow legislators to demand changes to executive legislation in 2015, and contemplated another veto in 2016 to the revised Act that would allow parliamentary committees to call for public hearings on bills. Her government also pushed through with the state text-books policy, which many critics argued whitewashed pro-Japanese activities during the colonial era as well as the country’s experience with military dictatorship. And, her negotiated agreement with Japan over the comfort women issue drew ire for its lack of consultation and rash conclusion. Through these endeavours, Park consistently stared down efforts by the legislature or within her party to wrestle the agenda away from her office, threatening to leave the party when key party members, such as former party chair Kim Moo-sung or former floor leader Yoo Seung-min, sought to take the party in a different direction.[iii]

The Fall of the Imperial President

But Park overshot herself on the candidate nomination for the 2016 general elections: her resistance on open party primaries, and then subsequent interference in the nomination process, led to the lost of the party as majority in the legislature. The outcome is particularly damning because, at the beginning of 2016, the ruling party looked set to coast to a 180-seat majority win for the ruling party that would allow it to push its agenda and eliminate need for compromise. But, the open party bickering over candidate-nominations, with senior party members rebuffed in favour of pro-Park candidates, led several to leave the party and run as independents. In the April general elections, the ruling party managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: it not only lost its majority in the legislature but also became the second largest party, after the opposition Minjoo Party. The scope of the imperial president is probably most telling in the aftermath of the election drubbing: while Park pledged to “humbly accept” the people’s will, she rejected a coalition with other parties, or even a reshuffle of the government.

In the end, the imperial president was brought down by the consistent, weekly rallies that began in October 2016 and surged to a high of 2 million. These are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, this may well be the most newsworthy aspect of the imperial president.

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Notes

[i] Arthur Schlesinger, 1973. The Imperial President. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin

[ii] O. Fiona Yap. 2015. “South Korea in 2014: A Tragedy Reveals the Country’s Weaknesses.” Asian Survey

[iii] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey

South Korea – Collective-Action and President Park’s Impeachment: Did Corruption Galvanize Protestors?

President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on December 9, 2016, when the South Korean legislature voted 234 to 56 (with two abstentions and seven invalid votes) to impeach the president – following consecutive weekends of large-scale protests against her – seemed nothing short of stunning. Here is an executive who has consistently weathered criticisms of her unconsultative style and recurring influence-peddling scandals to remain the Queen of Elections and assert her priorities over the opposition and even at the expense of her ruling Saenuri Party.[i] In fact, President Park was instrumental in the candidate-nomination debacle that led to departures of high-profile senior party-members and accounted in part for the Saenuri Party’s resounding defeat in the 2016 general elections. That the President managed to keep the now-minority party in government following the drubbing is instructive. Indeed, even following the President’s impeachment, Park loyalists retained leadership control of the ruling Saenuri Party (renamed since as the Liberty Korea Party); as a result, non-Park legislators and members left the party – some would say, again – to form the conservative Bareun Party. Given President Park’s apparent staying power, how did impeachment happen?

Public activism is the mainstay that underpins the resolve to bring about the President’s impeachment. The weekly protests that began in October and, at various times, exceeded two million, likely played a key role in bringing together the fractured opposition in the legislature to pull off the impeachment. It should be noted that the Park government had faced public protests previously, the most consistent being the Sewol protests to demand an independent investigative counsel for clear resolution of the tragedy in April 2014. What is different this time around is the size of the public protests: these are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987.

That large public protests are part of the knockout punch on a regime is not surprising: Tucker (2007) noted that electoral fraud led citizens to overcome collective action problems and form the Colored Revolutions protests that revolutionized politics in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan.[ii] What other issues galvanize public protests? My own work on anti-corruption efforts show that government corruption may have such a galvanizing effect: in particular, experiment results show that Korean citizens are willing to join others to demand government accountability for corruption, even when they suffer no losses through the corrupt actions, if  expect others to pursue that course of action.[iii]

President Park’s fall from grace, then, may lie less in her susceptibility to the influences of her confidante, Choi Soo-sil, and more with her alleged role in aiding bribery and corruption from Korean conglomerates to said confidante. The President and her lawyers have been stalling and stonewalling the special investigation counsel as well as the Constitutional Court, in an effort to delay the Court’s decision. Still, the Constitutional Court has made clear that it will decide by March 10, lending to speculations that the collective protests have had an impact even on the mostly-conservative court. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, it may well be useful to uncover other issues that galvanize citizens and lead to demands for government accountability.

 

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey vol 56 no 1: 78-86

[ii] Joshua Tucker. 2007. “Enough! Electoral Fraud, Collective Action Problems, and Post-Communist Colored Revolutions.” Perspectives on Politics vol 5 no 3: 535-551

[iii] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “How do South Koreans Respond to Government Corruption? Evidence from Experiments.” Korea Observer vol 47 no 2: 363-386

 

 

 

South Korea – The 2017 Presidential Candidates … so far…

 

Presidential elections in South Korea are scheduled for December 2017, but the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Dec 9, 2016, with 234 to 56 votes (with two abstentions and seven invalid), potentially brings the election forward if the Constitutional Court supports the impeachment. The Court has 180 days to decide, and six justices must support the impeachment or it fails. If the Court supports impeachment, then presidential elections must be held within 60 days. Not surprisingly, presidential aspirants are lining up to declare their candidacies in preparation for a shortened primary and election campaign. Perhaps curiously, the prevailing favorites have largely refrained from formal announcements and have only hinted at running.

The contenders who have announced so far are:

  • Gyeonggi Gov Nam Kyung-pil, Barun Party, which is the splinter from the Saenuri party comprising the non-Park faction. Nam was a five-term who has criticized the Park government for its authoritarian-leanings. The governor is also one of the first party heavyweights to quit the Saenuri party in November, 2016, and join the opposition to demand President Park’s impeachment.
  • Yoo Seong-min, Barun Party, is the former Saenuri floor-leader of the non-Park faction who lost that position following a clash with President Park and subsequently also lost the party’s nomination at general elections.[i] Yoo was folded back into the party after he won his seat as an independent. He is one of the 12 members of the crisis management council that included former chair of the Saenuri Party, Representative Kim Moo-sung, to bring party members into supporting President Park’s impeachment.
  • Rhee In-je, a senior Saenuri party leader who was a member of the Supreme Council, and who has declared his candidacy three other times since 1997.
  • South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, Minjoo Party, who at 52 represents one of the new generation of leaders from the liberal camp seeking higher political office to run the country.
  • Seongnam city Mayor Lee Jae-myung, Minjoo Party, a progressive who has revived the city’s economy and put in place an extensive welfare program in the city. Lee was among the few politicians who took part in the large protest rallies in Seoul against President Park beginning in October.
  • Sim Sang-jeung, leader of the Justice Party, a minority party with six seats in the legislature.
  • Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, 2012 presidential contender, co-founder of the People’s party and former chair. In 2014, Ahn co-founded the NPAD with the Minjoo Party, but then split from the alliance in spectacular fashion in December 2015 to form the People’s Party. Ahn dropped out of the presidential race in favour of Moon Jae-in in 2012 so as not to split the vote for the liberal camp; given the many charged conflicts between the two in the last few years, it will be interesting to see if Ahn – who is polling at fourth place in public opinion surveys – will wrestle for the liberal mantle till the end.

The current two front-runners have not been as forward in their candidacies, to avoid a potential backlash if they are seen as excessive politically ambitious. Still, both have signalled interests in the presidential race:

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2015. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey, Vol. 56 No. 1, January/February 2016; (pp. 78-86) DOI: 10.1525/as.2016.56.1.78

South Korea – Impeachment of the President: Critical Citizens and Political Will

On December 9, 2016, the South Korean legislature voted 234 to 56 (with two abstentions and seven invalid votes) to impeach the sitting president, Park Geun-hye. Two-thirds of the legislature – or 200 votes – is required for impeachment to succeed. The opposition and independents added to only 172 votes, so that at least 28 members of the Saenuri Party would have to cross the aisle in order for impeachment to pass. As late as December 2, 2016, it was unclear that there would be enough votes for impeachment: President Park’s offer to resign on November 29 threw a wrench in discussions between the three opposition parties, and within the Saenuri party. Yet, in a week, bolstered by the large and growing protests against the President Park, the opposition pulled together to pass the impeachment vote, the second successful impeachment of a sitting president since Korea’s democratization in 1987. The successful vote, then, offers a useful study of the opposition in the legislature, and the role of the opposition in the electorate in delivering the necessary political will.

The opposition in the legislature comprises three political parties – the main opposition Minjoo Party with 123 seats, the People’s Party with 38 seats, and the Justice Party with 6 seats – and independents; it also includes the non-Park members of the Saenuri Party. The Minjoo Party and the People’s Party had fractured from the former opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD); among the independents, some are disgruntled members of the NPAD while some are the disenfranchised members of the Saenuri Party who left following the candidate-nomination fights for general elections in April, 2016. Among the opposition, then, political hostility reigned high, so that the camaraderie that led to the fragile agreement between the three opposition parties cracked easily, such as when Minjoo Chair Choo Mi-ae attempted to broker a deal for the president’s resignation.

In the Saenuri Party, the non-Park faction had suffered a series of crippling setbacks in standoffs with the President that were generally resolved in favour of the President since 2015.[i] Indeed, even following the surprising electoral trouncing that led the ruling party to lose its majority in the legislature, the non-Park members were stymied in their efforts to build – or revive – a viable alternative to the pro-Park faction. Still, in this political crisis, non-Park members rallied to constitute 12 members of the crisis management council – it includes former chair of the Saenuri Party, Representative Kim Moo-sung, and former floor leader, Representative Yoo Seung-min – to bring party members into supporting impeachment. But, the strength of the President Park’s advocates in the party must be noted: even with the President’s impeachment, the new floor leaders of the Saenuri Party are from the pro-Park faction.

But for the united and expanding opposition in the electorate, the tenuous union of the opposition in the legislature may have crumbled in the face of further compromises from the executive. Critical citizens – citizens who question government authority or adopt unconventional participation, including protests, to influence government policies – have consistently battled to keep their concerns on the political agenda in South Korea.[2] This is no mean feat, given the discord among the opposition in the legislature, and notwithstanding concessions and compromises from the executive. Their steadfastness – hitting a record two million in weekly protests since October – buttressed the resolve of the opposition parties in the legislature, and likely convinced wavering members of the Saenuri Party to support the non-Park vote for impeachment.

Indeed, many predict that this opposition in the electorate will be critical in swaying the mostly-conservative Constitutional Court, which will have the final say in the impeachment process. Six Constitutional Court justices must support impeachment before the President is removed from office; the quorum for binding vote is seven. The Court has 180 days to decide on the impeachment; however, two of the nine justices are scheduled to retire in March 2017, which increases the odds that six of the remaining seven will vote to support impeachment. Still, the opinions of the justices will be made public; this, together with the strong public will against the President, may deliver the impeachment.

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey vol 56 no 1: 78-86

[2] See Norris, P. (2002). Democratic Phoenix. Political Activism Worldwide. New Social Movements, Protest Politics and the Internet: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kim, S. (2010). Public trust in government in Japan and South Korea: Does the rise of critical citizens matter? Public administration review, 70(5), 801-810; Sander, T. H., & Putnam, R. D. (2010). Still bowling alone?: The post-9/11 split. Journal of Democracy, 21(1), 9-16.

 

 

South Korea – President Park in the battle of her career: Lessons for Legislative and Electoral Oppositions around the World

On November 13, 2016, a series of protests culminated into a million-strong demonstration in central Seoul to demand President Park Geun-hye’s resignation. It is the largest protest to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations that ushered the liberalization of the autocratic political system in 1987. And, it was not limited to the capital: smaller-scale protests were held in cities across the country. The immediate trigger to this is the influence of Park’s confidante, Choi Soon-sil, on the President’s personal and state decisions that ranged from outfits to presidential appointments. This is not new: the President – widely considered unconsultative even within her own ruling Saenuri party – has faced criticisms and political challenges resulting from the control and influence of the coterie of friends and advisors who limit access to her since she took office in 2012.[i] What is new is the magnitude and determination of the protests: until now, the fractured opposition – in the legislature and in the electorate – has failed to pose a viable challenge to the government. Clearly, the tide has turned, so that the President – who as Queen of Elections has consistently weathered these influence- and corruption-scandals – is facing considerable odds to hang on to her position. It pays to examine how the opposition in the legislature has failed in the past and how the electorate has stepped up to lead this battle to crest.

The opposition in the legislature suffered – and continues to suffer – from a volatility that has challenged its institutionalization. The current legislature has two main opposition parties, the Minjoo Party with a plurality of 123 seats, and the People’s Party with 38 seats. Both parties constituted the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) in April 2014; their split on December 13, 2015, was surprising but not unexpected: it underscored the feuds – frequently open – within the alliance, as well as between factions in the Minjoo Party. Still, the alliance split seemed to foreshadow further splits within the Minjoo Party and looked set to hand the electoral advantage to the ruling Saenuri Party. Fortunately for the opposition, and likely unfortunately for the Saenuri Party, the ruling party’s supermajority prospects – in the face of the opposition split – crumbled. In particular, party discord between the pro-Park and the non-Park factions led to candidate-nomination fights and party departures of senior Saenuri party members to run as independents in the elections. In this context of these conditions, the general elections for April 2016, led to the following outcomes: opposition Minjoo Party with the plurality of 123 seats, Saenuri Party with 122 seats, People’s Party with 38 seats, Justice Party with 6, and 11 independents.

Yet the electoral outcomes speak less to the parties than to the electorate. Electoral turnout was close to 60% in April, a low figure that, nevertheless, exceeded previous elections. Importantly, young voters featured prominently in the 2016 polls: 79.5 percent in their 30s, 72.9 percent of those in their 40s and 53.7 percent in their 50s voted for the opposition. Among those over 60, 59.3 percent cast ballots for the ruling party, compared to 35.2 percent for an opposition party.

In democracies, political parties represent an important development where they displace personalistic politics or candidate-centered politics to perform as recurring sources for aggregating voters’ interests into cogent political agendas based on programmatic contestation that undergirds executive-legislative relations. However, party roles are a-changing and not just in the emergent democracies. In the case of South Korea, the current political climate has foisted responsibilities onto the electorate, where a lack of a viable opposition to take aim and provide an electable alternative to the government means that the civil society pressures must persist.[ii]

Korean society has responded to the call: from the large and regular rallies in the aftermath of the Sewol tragedy to maintain public awareness, to the smaller drives against the tax reform debacle of 2015, civil society has pressed the government for accountability at considerable expense. It is this level of public activity and commitment that underpins hopes that substantive changes are in store for the country.

Indeed, but for this public activity, the on-again-off-again liaisons between the different factions within the main opposition party, the Minjoo Party, as well as across opposition parties, may not have materialized: as had occurred often in the past, the divided opposition turned on itself as the newly-minted leader of the Minjoo Party arranged to meet with President Park over the scandal. The leader, Representative Choo Mi-ae, narrowly averted further fallout by cancelling the meeing. Still, the objections to the meeting underline how easily the opposition in the legislature fractures, particularly in the face of President Park’s concessions. And, President Park has expanded efforts to mollify the opposition: she has reversed her previous opposition to constitutional revisions – a key demand of non-Park supporters in her party, as well as among the oppositionand nominated key aides to the late liberal presidents Roh Moh-hyun and Kim Dae-Jung as Prime Minister and chief-of-staff.

Notwithstanding these legislative-executive ebbs and flows, public activity has remained the mainstay that underpins the current resolve to force the President to be accountable. The public activism is fueled from different wellsprings. Still, the opposition parties in the legislature are taking cues off this public resolve to present a rare concerted front. Oppositions across nations may do well to take note. And, take heart.

  1. [i] O. Fiona Yap, 2015, “ South Korea in 2014: A Tragedy Reveals the Country’s Weaknesses
  2. [ii] O. Fiona Yap, 2016, “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections”

Thomas O’Brien – Presidentialism and Democratisation in South Africa and South Korea

This is a guest post by Thomas O’Brien, Lecturer in Political Science at the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the UK. It is a summary of an article that will appear in Government and Opposition

The regime changes in South Africa and South Korea provide interesting insights into the role of presidential leadership during democratisation. In both cases the incumbent leader was forced to choose to subject their position to a democratic vote, thereby facing the risk of defeat. Echoing the point made by Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015), the respective regime types made this option viable as there was a belief that victory was possible and the status quo was increasingly unsustainable. F.W. de Klerk in South Africa was head of the National Party and had some hope that he would be able to retain power through democratic means given the institutional base and resources of the party. Similarly, Roh Tae Woo’s military background provided an institutional base on which he could rely to ensure stability and call on for support, in spite of his move into a civilian role. The position of President and head of a formal institutional apparatus gave them authority and control, which facilitated a degree of confidence that they could make the transition to democratic leadership successfully. However, the decision to accept the need for reform was not driven by altruistic ideals. Opposition to the incumbent regime structures had been growing significantly by the time each leader came to power, limiting the space they had to operate. South Africa had seen sustained social protest against the apartheid policies and faced growing foreign pressure in the form of sanctions and boycotts. At the same time, de Klerk faced internal divisions as hardliners within the party sought to block reforms. Roh Tae Woo faced extensive social protests against continued authoritarian rule, having taken over from Chun Doo Hwan who had been forced to resign in the face of widespread and sustained social unrest.

The issue of continuity is particularly important in these two cases. Both de Klerk and Roh assumed the presidency following the inability of their predecessors to continue (due to ill health and loss of legitimacy) during periods of instability. Taking on the role at pivotal moments provided an opportunity to make a change that had not been possible for their predecessors due to their deeper association with the regime structures. While both leaders had held high-ranking posts, their profile had been less contentious enabling them to maintain control over the institutional structure as they introduced reforms (on the emergence of reforming leaders from within see O’Brien, 2007). Continuity in this sense enabled the emergent leaders to introduce what they perceived to be reforms necessary to ensure their continued control. In both cases the eventual loss of control did not disrupt the democratisation process, as the leaders had been able to initiate reform internally to safeguard against reversion to authoritarian practices and were willing to accept the outcome.

The relative success of democratisation in these two cases warrants continued consideration of the role of incumbent leaders in shaping trajectories around regime changes. Democratisation by its very nature is a period of uncertainty, as roles and institutions are contested and reconstituted. Events in the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions show that regime change does not necessarily lead automatically to consolidated democracy. External pressure plays a key role in creating the opportunity for democratisation or reform by introducing a degree of uncertainty, as more actors become involved and take a stake in the outcome. A leader committed to change may be able to draw on this pressure to exercise agency and challenge entrenched institutional practices and patterns. In such situations the actions of the incumbent leader are crucial in shaping the outcome, as it is ultimately the elites that determine how to manage the opportunities and threats that arise. Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán (2013) note that elite policy preferences (moderate or radical), normative preference for democracy or authoritarianism, and the regional political environment are key in determining whether a process of democratisation will be initiated.

In initiating reform the leader’s ability to manage the process and the likelihood of playing a role in the post-transitional context is arguably shaped by four structural factors: authority, institutions, opposition and continuity. Authority refers to the source of the leader’s power and in such regimes is generally derived from performance or personal charisma (Brooker, 2000). The robustness of the leader’s authority will determine their ability to maintain loyalty and exercise agency in shaping political developments.  While the reasons for the decision to relinquish power or at least allow reform of the system vary, legitimacy can be identified as an important factor. Where a regime loses support and legitimacy among the wider population it is possible to continue, but internal divisions may emerge as other actors perceive their own positions to be threatened. Institutional patterns play a key role in ‘structuring the nature of political competition’ (Elgie, 1995: 23), as they provide a base from which the leader can operate. If these have been neglected or degraded, they are less useful in times of crisis (see O’Brien, 2007 on Boris Yeltsin). As noted above, opposition is significant in pressing for reform, but the location (internal versus external) and strength of this opposition will determine the space the leader has to operate. The accretion of custom and practice over time ties actors into the system, thereby reducing the chances of defection from within, but potentially limiting the agency of the leader by encouraging pressure to maintain the status quo.

The institutional form of the regime plays an important role in the decision-making of incumbent leaders. Examining the ability of foreign pressure to force change in non-democratic regimes, Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015) find that personalist regimes are more resistant, as the stakes are higher for the leader without a formalised base. In military and party regimes the existence of a formal support base provides more opportunities in the event of systemic threats. Military leaders are able to return to barracks and exercise some degree of control over the democratising regime, through the threat of force. Party based regimes have less direct control, but possess the ability to participate (possibly under a new name) in the reconstituted system and return incumbent leaders to office. The corporate form of military and party regimes also enables the leader to rely on the hierarchy to ensure loyalty of followers and limit chances of defection, as failure would be costly for the whole of the collective. As noted, the institutional form played a role in both South Africa and South Korea, ensuring stability and a chance that the incumbent leaders may be able to secure a degree of influence over the regime trajectory.

Decisions of a leader are central in shaping the likelihood of a move towards democracy, but this does not guarantee that a fully realised democratic system will result, as structural constraints and internal opposition may stall or reverse progress made. Elite preferences determine what tools and direction the leader may choose (Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán, 2013), but these preferences exist within a social and institutional framework that enables or constrains their actions. F.W. de Klerk and Roh Tae Woo demonstrated through their actions a preference towards greater democracy, reinforced by social instability and external pressure, but it was their control of the institutions of government that enabled this preference to be acted on. The cases also reiterate the importance of the perceived likelihood of post-transition success, maintaining a degree of control over the process. As Escribà-Folch and Wright (2015) argue, in the absence of a post-transition future a turn to repression may be a more viable option. Preferences are not absolute, contextual factors and likely future outcomes condition the ability and willingness of leaders to act on their preferences.

References:

  • Paul Brooker (2000) Non-Democratic Regimes: Theory, Government and Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Robert Elgie (1995) Political Leadership in Liberal Democracies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Abel Escribà-Folch and Joseph Wright (2015) Foreign Pressure and the Politics of Autocratic Survival. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (2013) Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival and Fall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Thomas O’Brien (2007) ‘The Role of the Transitional Leader: A Comparative Analysis of Adolfo Suárez and Boris Yeltsin’, Leadership, 3(4): 419-32.

Thomas O’Brien is a lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. His research examines leadership, democratization, environmental politics, human security, protest and New Zealand. Previous work has appeared in the British Journal of Sociology, Conflict, Security and Development, Contemporary Politics, Democratization, and Political Studies. @TomOB_NZ

South Korea – Election outcomes 2016 and Presidential runs 2017

The outcome of the general elections – opposition Minjoo Party with the plurality of 123 seats, Saenuri Party with 122 seats, People’s Party with 38 seats, Justice Party with 6, and 11 independents – makes clear that public tolerance for party politics and fissures has peaked. The dissent over candidate nominations, party platforms, and open conflicts between party leaders  on full public display just months before the election – the dissolution of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the splintering of the ruling Saenuri Party, and the establishment of the new People’s Party – led to an increasing rather than declining number of “undecided” swing voters as election day neared. It was clear to candidates, party-leaders, and prospective presidential candidates, that the outcomes were far from settled. The results – with Saenuri party losing a majority and falling behind the opposition Minjoo Party as largest legislative party – has significant bearing on the presidential race in 2017. In particular, the outcomes for the legislative parties promise to translate into political leverage to set the platform, viability, and credibility of candidates for the presidential elections in 2017.

The stakes going into the general elections were high. For instance, former opposition Minjoo party leader, Moon Jae-in, announced that he would quit politics – and his possible presidential run – based on election outcomes in the opposition party’s strongholds. The Minjoo Party did not do well in its traditional strongholds: it lost all eight districts in Gwangju to the opposition People’s Party, and only won three of the 20 seats in the North and South Jeolla provinces. The party did much better in the Saenuri strongholds of Busan, Daegu and North and South Gyeongsang provinces, where the Saenuri Party lost a total of 17 seats.

The remarkable performance of Representative Ahn Cheol-soo’s co-founded People’s Party – 38 seats, beating some of the most optimistic predictions – certainly bodes well for his consideration of a presidential run. The People’s Party was formally launched on February 2, 2016, co-founded with representative Chun Jung-bae who also left the opposition NPAD and successfully contested the Gwangju seat as an independent in the April 2015 by-elections. The People’s Party was not without problems: not long following the official launch, senior party members fought openly over the possibility of merging with the opposition Minjoo Party. Still, the Party managed to smooth over the tensions, and the achievement of a legislative negotiation bloc, plus the possible role of pivotal party in the legislature, will keep the hopes of a promising presidential run very much alive.

Meanwhile, outcomes for the Saenuri party will affect President Park’s influence on the party’s choice of presidential candidate for 2017. With at least two parties battling over liberal voters, the conservative ruling Saenuri party looked set to coast to a majority. Indeed, at the beginning of the 2016, political pundits and analysts did not rule out a 180-seat majority win for the party that would allow the party to pursue its legislative agenda without the need to compromise. That possibility eroded when party discord between the pro-Park and the non-Park factions led to candidate-nomination fights and party departures of senior Saenuri party members to run as independents in the elections. Polls showed the Saenuri party losing support in its traditional strongholds, and party strategists turned to ensuring that it did not lose its legislative majority. The party’s focus on national security issues, in the face of North Korea’s bellicosity, seemed like a safe-bet. Still, the dimmed economic outlook for the country, and the progressive encroachment on civil rights and liberties in the country, underlined that the safe-bet was not enough to galvanize public support. With this loss in the parliamentary majority, the “queen of elections” may no longer be able stave off the possibility of a “lame duck” presidency for the remainder of President Park’s time in office.[1]

[1] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections” Asian Survey vol 56 no1: 78-86 http://as.ucpress.edu/content/56/1/78

South Korea – General Elections 2016: Prospects, Possibilities, and Problems

General elections are around the corner, scheduled for April 13, 2016. A possible total of 300 seats are up for grabs: 246 from single-member districts, and 54 by proportional representation. “Possible” because the Constitutional Court had ruled in 2014 that the electoral map must be revised by the end of 2015 to uphold equal representation, which, according to the Court, means that the current ratio of the most populous electoral district to the least populous of 3 to 1 must be lowered to less than 2 to 1. The deadline has come and passed, with the legislature failing to agree on how to redraw the electoral map. Meanwhile, with less than 100 days to elections, the race is off … to an ambiguous start. What are the prospects, possibilities, and problems for election 2016?

One problem – and it is a huge one – is the lack of an electoral map of the contestable districts. Notwithstanding the lack of an electoral map, the National Election Commission (NEC) announced that candidates may register their preliminary candidacy between January 1, 2016 and March 23, 2016. Registering means that candidates may carry out limited campaign activities up to 120 days prior to Election Day: candidates may establish a campaign office, make campaign phone calls, and conduct a limited number of campaign activities; in contrast, prospective candidates, who must register during the final candidate registration period for the National Assembly between March 24-25, are generally prohibited from pursuing these activities. Also, incumbents running for re-election are allowed to contact their constituencies, which further benefits their re-election campaign. New parties with fewer incumbents, then, suffer several disadvantages. Perhaps not surprisingly, the newly-launched People’s Party by Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, former presidential candidate, proposed delaying the elections as a result of the legislature’s failure to approve an electoral map. That proposal was roundly rejected by the ruling Saenuri Party, and also opposed by the opposition Minjoo Party, the remnant of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).

Perhaps more interesting, what are the possible parties contesting elections and their prospects? The are three large parties or blocs that comprise or are close to comprising at least 20 legislators, the minimum size of a legislative negotiation blocs: the ruling Saenuri Party (156, as of January 12, 2016); the Minjoo Party (118, as of January 12, 2016), and the People’s Party (17, as of February 3, 2016). A negotiation bloc is accorded rights to negotiate legislative calendars and receive higher state subsidies. Both the Minjoo Party and the People’s Party have been actively recruiting members since the NPAD split in December, 2015.

The People’s Party was formally launched on February 2, 2016; it is led by Representative Ahn Cheol-soo and Representative Chun Jung-bae, both of whom left the opposition NPAD. Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, co-founder of the NPAD, left on December 13, 2015, following open disagreements with NPAD’s then-chair, Moon Jae-in. Representative Chun Jung-bae left the NPAD in March, 2015 and successfully won the Gwangju seat as an independent in the April by-elections; in September, he announced plans to set up a party to contest the general elections. Although the People’s Party has seen a spate of new additions since January, it remains thee legislators short of the minimum 20 needed for a negotiation bloc.

Meanwhile, the Minjoo Party has been aggressively recruiting to stem the flood of high-profile defections from the party that included Representative Kwon Rho-kap, leader of the Kim Dae-jung faction of the former NPAD, who defected in January. The party is in talks for a merger with the Justice Party, which holds five legislative seats; the party has also brought in Lee Soo-hyuck, former deputy foreign minister and chief delegate for the six-party negotiation talks with North Korea, and recruited President Park Geun-hye’s economic strategist for her 2012 presidential campaign, Kim Jong-in, to run the election campaign committee. In addition, Chair Moon Jae-in has stepped down as chair of the party to cede authority to the campaign committee. These efforts may be paying off: a poll of possible presidential candidates conducted in January, 2016, showed Moon in the lead, ahead of Ahn and Saenuri Chair Kim Moo-sung, for the first time since May, 2015.

With at least two parties battling over liberal voters, the conservative ruling Saenuri party looks set to coast to a majority. President Park’s uncanny ability to deliver electoral victories is imponderable: in the April 2015 by-elections, the ruling party swept three of the four contestable seats in the face of record low approvals, stark poll numbers, and with almost every political pundit calling the election for the opposition NPAD. Clearly, she is not known as the “Queen of Elections” without reason. How well that works in April, 2016, will foreshadow much for the presidential race in 2017.

South Korea – Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?

Former presidential candidate Representative Ahn Cheol-soo announced his departure from the NPAD on Sunday, December 13, 2015, ending a troubled relationship with the opposition alliance that he co-chaired when it was officially launched in April 2014. The NPAD has had its share of problems, failing to fill the role as a viable opposition expected by members and supporters. Still, Ahn’s departure is a significant blow: it bares open the fractures within the alliance that the leadership has ineffectually tried to reconcile. Meanwhile, with about four months till the general elections in April 2016, the fragmented opposition is likely to hand the electoral advantage to the ruling Saenuri Party, as the following account shows.

The first signs of trouble in the opposition alliance surfaced soon after its founding, on the issue of party-nomination reforms which the NPAD had pledged to observe for the June 2014 by-elections. Closed-door party-nominations have been blamed for feeding corruption, public disapprobation, and distrust; consequently, the NPAD’s initial resolve on reforming the process promised to bring “new” politics to challenge the predominant politicking-as-usual. However, while the NPAD pushed hard for the reform, the Saenuri party maintained the party-nomination process, which advantaged its party candidates. In the face of the growing disadvantage, NPAD members challenged the reform while old-timers such as Gwangju mayor Kang Un-tae and party spokesperson Representative Lee Yong-sup quit the party. In response to the open rift, voters handed the by-elections to the Saenuri Party, giving the party 11 seats but only four to the NPAD. 20 NPAD party leaders, including co-chairs Ahn and Kim, resigned from their leadership posts to take responsibility for the trouncing and a major leadership change was underway.[1]

The leadership change seemed completed at the party convention in February 2015, with 2012 opposition presidential candidate Rep Moon Jae-in installed at the helm. At the same time, however, the contest laid bare the three major factions in the alliance: (1) Moon, who leads the pro-Roh Moo-hyun faction that comprise supporters of the deceased former president; (2) Rep Park Jie-won, a leader of the pro-Kim Dae-jung faction that comprise supporters of the former president and Nobel-peace prize winner; and (3) Rep Lee In-young, a leader of the 486 faction that comprises former student activists and protestors of the authoritarian regime. Moon’s successful election did little to stem the party infighting. As a result, notwithstanding poor approvals for the president and the ruling party, the NPAD managed to snatch defeat from sure victory (again), losing all four seats in liberal strongholds in the April 29, 2015 by-elections, with three going to Saenuri and one to NPAD-turned-independent candidate, Chun Jung-bae.[2]

Since the 2015 by-election routing, the NPAD has openly feuded over responsibilities for the results. Ahn is not the first to bolt the party following the rising hostilities in the party, but his standing in the party is likely to induce others to follow suit. Thus, Ahn’s confidant and chief-of-staff, Rep. Moon Byung-ho, is expected to announce his departure by mid-December, and Moon predicts between 20 and 30 current NPAD members will join Ahn to create a new party. If Ahn and his allies manage to pool at least 20 seats in the legislature, Assembly rules means that it will be entitled to government subsidies and other parliamentary privileges.

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[1] Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “South Korea in 2014: A Tragedy Reveals the Country’s Weaknesses.” Asian Survey vol 55 no 1: 132-141

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “South Korea – Will the Opposition be a Viable Challenge in the 2016 Elections?”