The election of Representative Moon Jae-in as president on May 9, 2017, hands the political pulpit to the liberals in the opposition, following almost a decade of conservative policies under the previous ruling party, the Liberal Korea Party (LKP). The crowded presidential contest – up to 15 candidates declared or hinted their intentions at one point, likely spurred in part by the momentum of change leading to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye – whittled down to five, from each of the parties in the legislature. Moon was elected to the presidency with 41.1 percent of the votes, ahead of runner-up Hong and the others in the race. Turnout, at 77.2 percent, is the highest in 20 years.
|Candidates||Estimated popular votes|
|Representative Moon Jae-in, Minjoo Party||41.1 percent|
|Representative Hong Joon-pyo, Liberal Korea Party||24.03 percent|
|Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, People’s Party||21.41 percent|
|Representative Yoo Seung-min, Bareun Party||6.76 percent|
|Representative Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party||6.17 percent|
Representative Moon Jae-in led the pack at the outset, but his lead was challenged regularly, first by former UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and then by his old rival-turned political partner-turned political opponent, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo. Former UN Secretary-general Ban was highly sought by the conservative parties, who saw his appeal to conservatives, moderates, and independents; early polls in December 2016 that gave Ban a lead over Moon seemed to vindicate that belief. However, that lead evaporated quickly, and Ban subsequently dropped out of the race on February 1, 2017. Both Ahn and Moon contested the 2012 presidential race, but Ahn left the race in favour of Moon to avoid splitting the liberal vote to the benefit of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye. That effort did not pay off: Park won the presidential election in 2012. In 2014, Ahn and Moon formed the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), but the alliance was fraught with problems and failed to cohere. Ahn and his allies split from the NPAD in December 2015 to form the People’s Party, and went on to defy expectations by gaining 38 seats in the legislative elections held shortly after in April, 2016. Polls in early April showed Ahn gaining momentum in the race, even as Moon kept the lead; however, by late April, Moon had widened the lead over Ahn.
A large unknown in the elections is whom the conservatives in the electorate would support. The former ruling Saenuri Party splintered into the LKP and the Bareun Party in 2017: the LKP’s candidate is South Gyeongsang Province Governor Hong Joon-pyo while the Bareun Party’s candidate is Representative Yoo Seong-min. The LKP is renamed from the Saenuri Party after the Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye; it may be interesting to note that Saenuri was renamed from the Grand National Party in an effort to distance the party from a series of scandals and voter dissatisfaction with then-President Lee Myung-bak. The Bareun party comprises members of the non-Park faction, many of whom lost party nominations for the general elections in 2016 to pro-Park supporters. Both Governor Hong and Representative Yoo did not have broad appeal to the conservatives; this partly explains the effort by the conservative parties to draw Ban into the race. However, with Ban out of the race and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn’s declining to run, conservative voters began to rally around Governor Hong late in the race particularly in the traditional strongholds of former President Park Geun-hye. The endorsement of the former President’s sister, Park Geun-ryoung, for Governor Hong, may have helped increase support for Hong: in late April, polls show the candidate in second place. 13 legislators from Bareun Party left the party to return to the LKP, in order to boost the support for the conservative candidate. Importantly, that precipitated a flood of members and donations to Bareun Party, as voters express their disapproval of such politicking.
Expectations are high for the new president, particularly following the decade of conservative politics in the country that may have engendered the “imperial” presidency of former President Park Geun-hye. President Moon has pledged to “yield the president’s imperial power to the people”; in addition, the president has signalled an important shift in the stance to North Korea (dialogue), while also negotiating with the US and China over the deployment of THAAD. However, the President also maintained a stance on “strong defense” for national security, perhaps to diffuse perceptions that the new administration will be soft on North-South relations, and likely also an olive branch to the conservatives in the country. On the domestic front, the president has already nominated his Prime Minister, the liberal governor of South Jeolla Province, Lee Nak-yon, an experienced public figure, and announced a presidential committee on job creation.
The President is clearly demonstrating an aptitude and preparedness to tackle the job. In the current international climate, it is certainly heartening.
 Yap, O. Fiona. 2015. “South Korea – Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263&cpage=1, December 16, 2015 <accessed May 10, 2017
 Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Presidential Profile – Park Geun-hye: The Imperial President? Presidential Power, http://presidential-power.com/?p=6177, March 20, 2017 <accessed May 10, 2017>