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.

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