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