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.

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