Category Archives: South Korea

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.


[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.


  • 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

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.


[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?”



South Korea – Presidential Decree, Presidential Veto, and Presidential Power

Elections are in the horizon for South Korea: legislative elections are scheduled for April 2016 while presidential elections are to be held in December 2017. With about nine months of campaigning to go under a president that seems under pressure of public disapprobation, and with the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) seemingly in disarray, this looks to be a good time for ruling Saenuri Party officers to re-evaluate loyalties to the “lame-duck” President while underlining allegiances to the public. It seems that floor leader Yoo Seung-min did just that: he brokered a deal with the opposition NPAD to pass the President’s public service pension reform by acceding to the NPAD’s demands to pass the National Assembly Act. Yet, within weeks of the path-breaking effort, both Yoo and the hard-won reforms would suffer the fall-out of the President’s wrath.

The National Assembly Act allows for the legislature to “request” changes to the president’s decrees or ordinances (itself a change from the previously, more strongly-worded “demand” changes in the Act). The Act, primarily targeted at reducing the executive’s influence on the investigations into the Sewol tragedy, provided for parliament to request a revision or change to an enforcement ordinance that requires the relevant ministry to respond to the request. The nimble balance of delivering on an important policy on the President’s agenda while acknowledging the public’s demand for greater accountability without compromising (and, indeed, perhaps enhancing) the ruling Saenuri party’s election chances was no mean feat. Indeed, the National Assembly Act was passed by 211 lawmakers – more than two thirds of the 298 incumbent members of the legislature – so that its strong support would underline to the President the significance of the brokered agreement.

Yet, the President not only came out blasting against the legislature’s “unconstitutional” encroachment of presidential powers but also threatened to veto the Act, and with it, the civil service pension reform bill that had been painfully and painstakingly negotiated. And, the President did not stop there. Following her veto on June 25, the President proceeded to cold-shoulder floor leader Yoo – notwithstanding his apologies and efforts to mend bridges with the executive – and her own party, until Yoo resign as floor leader for his “betrayal.”

Following the President’s veto, the Saenuri party recoiled from the Act, choosing to boycott the vote revisiting the Act and allowing the bill to die. The ruling party also recommended floor leader Yoo’s resignation from the post in a general assembly meeting, which Yoo accepted.

What is perhaps most curious is that these series of events have progressed while President Park is personally experiencing the most significant slide in public approval of her career, marked in turn by Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, an “influence” scandal in January 2015 that eventually led to the replacement of her highly unpopular chief-of-staff Kim Ki-choon, a huge corruption scandal that engulfed chief architects of her 2012 campaign as well as her government revealed in the aftermath of a business tycoon’s suicide in April 2015, to be followed by the government’s missteps and mishandling of the MERS crisis in June 2015.

What does this mean? At a minimum, it shows that the President retains significant political clout, which may set up political battles between the sitting President and prospective presidential candidates for control of the party going into elections.

South Korea – By-elections 2015: what lessons for the NPAD?

South Korea held by-elections to four seats on April 29, 2015. The lopsided results – the ruling Saenuri party won three of the four seats, while an independent formerly associated with the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) won the remaining seat – are resounding defeats for the opposition NPAD for several reasons discussed below. With these by-election wins, the ruling party holds 160 of the 298-seat National Assembly while the NPAD holds 130. Why did the opposition NPAD fare so poorly? Perhaps more importantly, what lessons do the results hold for the NPAD?


Hopes dashed?

Notwithstanding the low number of seats, the by-elections appear to favour the NPAD on at least four grounds: first, although this is the first by-election for the newly-elected leader of the opposition, Moon Jae-In, Representative Moon is an old political hand in the opposition, having previously been the 2012 presidential candidate for the then-opposition Democratic United Party. There were hopes that Rep. Moon may be able to draw on or build from his experiences following the presidential election loss to Park in 2012, to unite the party and move it forward. Still, the party leadership-contest divided rather than united the different camps in the NPAD. Although Rep Moon has extended olive branches to the other factions with appointments to high-ranking party positions, the party has so far failed to develop viable policy positions to challenge the ruling party. This failing is not trivial: the NPAD has not been able to achieve public approvals significantly above 20 percent, and this may be the root cause of the NPAD’s poor electoral showing.

Second, the corruption scandal engulfing the country – deceased construction tycoon Sung Wan-jong left a suicide note implicating several prominent politicians as having received bribes, including Prime Minister Lee Wan Koo, President Park’s former chief-of-staffs Kim Ki-choon and Huh Tae-yeol, and current chief-of-staff Lee Byung-kee – ensnared President Park and the ruling Saenuri Party more than the opposition NPAD. Such a scandal should have favoured the NPAD in the election; yet, the results underline that Rep Moon’s message for the election to be a “judgement on a corrupt government” was not sufficient to move voters to the NPAD. Here, again, the outcome directs the NPAD towards the position-strategy of running as a viable governing party, with clear policy-positions, and away from the position-strategy of running only as an opposition.

Third, the one-year anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy with more than 300 dead, mostly students, was a painful reminder of the failings of the ruling party that could have diminished support for the ruling Saenuri party. The public’s dissatisfaction and frustration at the lack of progress on investigations or salvage of the ferry has led to demonstrations and fueled criticism even within the ruling party. Under these conditions, the NPAD’s failure to capture the disaffected for the by-election is, again, a clear signal that opposing President Park is not enough to win votes.

Fourth, it is a useful to note that three of the four by-election seats were previously held by leftist party, the Unified Progressive Party, which had been disbanded following the Constitutional Court’s ruling in December that the party was guilty of instigating armed rebellion in the country. That these seats from districts supportive of opposition candidates did not fall to the NPAD is telling: it is a reminder – again – that the public is not just supportive of opposition to the ruling party.

Will the opposition NPAD be viable for the 2016 elections? As discussed previously, it is clear that the headwinds against the opposition must be overcome by clear policies and governance strategies that show that it is more than stonewalling or obstruction.

South Korea – Will the Opposition be a Viable Challenge in the 2016 Elections?

The successful founding of the NPAD alliance – officially launched in April 2014 with two co-chairs, the popular independent representative and former presidential candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, and Democratic Party chair Kim Han-gill, hot on the heels of Ahn’s establishment of his New Political Vision Party – offered the possibility of a viable opposition party to challenge the conservative turn in politics and policies in the country. Yet, supporters of the opposition have seen more disappointments than successes, and the 11-4 landslide in favour of the ruling Saenuri Party in the July 31 2014 by-elections did not bode well for an alliance that started off on strong footing. Will the opposition mature into a viable challenge for the 2016 elections? What lessons did the past year hold for the NPAD?

A big disappointment that contributed to the lackluster support for the NPAD was its reversal on party-nomination reforms. The closed-door nomination process was blamed for feeding corruption, and was a primary source of public disapprobation and distrust. Not surprisingly, all the candidates for the 2012 presidential race pledged to reform the process. However, while the NPAD pushed hard for the reform to be implemented in the 2014 elections, the Saenuri party reversed itself to adopt an open primary system that maintained party-nomination. Meanwhile, rifts within the NPAD over the value of scrapping party-nomination process arose, particularly since the Saenuri party’s reversal improved its candidates’ electability. In the face of a party revolt – leading NPAD members such as Gwangju’s Mayor Kang Un-tae and party spokesperson and Representative Lee Yong-sup quit the party over party-nominations – the NPAD reversed itself; to its further detriment, co-chair Ahn proceeded to pick candidates close to him for the local races. This double reversal – on the principle of “new” politics, followed by inconsistent and opaque party-nominations – fed the 11-4 hammering in the by-elections. 20 NPAD party leaders, including co-chairs Ahn and Kim, resigned from their leadership posts to take responsibility for the trouncing.

Another major set-back occurred over the opposition alliance failure to advocate for the Sewol families. In particular, then-NPAD floor leader Park Young-sun, who was elected to fill the chair position following the resignation of the NPAD party leaders, dropped a key demand that the Sewol families be granted a say in recommending candidates for the role of special prosecutor in the investigation of the tragedy. Committees representing the Sewol families blamed the NPAD – even more than the ruling party – for failing to represent their interests. Following the internal party rancor over the agreement, Park resigned her leadership posts at the NPAD. Still, the incident damaged the opposition’s standing.

At the party convention in February 2015, the NPAD elected the 2012 opposition presidential candidate Rep Moon Jae-in as leader in a contest that laid bare the three major factions in the alliance. Moon, who leads the pro-Roh Moo-hyun faction that comprise supporters of the deceased former president, beat out Rep Park Jie-won, who leads the pro-Kim Dae-jung faction that comprise supporters of the former president and Nobel-peace prize winner, and Rep Lee In-young, who leads the 486 faction that comprises former student activists and protestors against the authoritarian regime.

Since his election as opposition leader, Rep Moon has extended olive-branches to the other factions while beating a steady drumbeat against President Park’s overreach.  Whether this works against the considerable headwinds against the opposition remains to be seen. At a minimum, it is clear that the opposition is aware of the need to articulate clear policies and governance strategies that show that it is more than stonewalling or obstruction.

East Asia – Presidential Powers and Semi-Presidential Systems

Calls for constitutional revisions have surfaced across four of the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East and Southeast Asia, namely, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The appeals for constitutional changes have arisen for different reasons: in the Philippines, some have raised the possibility in order to extend the tenure of a generally successful and popular president. In Indonesia, it is aimed at improving governability in the face of a fragmented, uncooperative legislature. In South Korea, the option relates to reducing the powers of the executive for greater accountability, a stance advocated by presidential candidates – including current President Park – in the 2012 campaign. Likewise, in Taiwan, constitutional change offers the prospect of constraining the powers of the president. Despite differences in the objectives of change, one reform frequently suggested to replace existing institutional set-up across the countries is the premier-presidential form of semi-presidential system. This raises an interesting question: what is the underlying problem across the countries that the premier-presidential form may resolve?

Despite differences in the objectives, one commonality across the countries is presidentialized parties, where the executive-leader has “considerable independence in the electoral and governing arenas.” [1]According to Samuels and Shugart (2009), presidentialized parties result when the “constitutional structure separates executive and legislative origin and/or survival.” The outcome of the president’s independence manifests differently across the countries: in the Philippines, political parties may rally around strong candidates to ensure continuity; in Indonesia, presidents may be saddled with hostile legislatures; in South Korea and Taiwan, presidents may have few incentives to shift focus away from their personal agendas to the parties.[2]

Clearly, the outcomes depend in part on party organization and party-system development  in the countries. What is less clear is that the premier-presidential form of semi-presidential system will resolve the underlying problem of party weakness. It may behoove these new democracies of the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan, to consider the outlay of time and effort towards constitutional change.


[1] Elgie, Robert. 2011.

[2] For another perspective, see Cheibub and Limongi (2014). Cheibub, Jose Antonio and Fernando Limongi. 2014. “The structure of legislative-executive relations: Asia in comparative perspective.” In Comparative Constitutional Law in Asia, ed. Rosalind Dixon and Tim Ginsburg. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing