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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.