The results of the June 4, 2014, mayoral and gubernatorial elections for South Korea show the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy with a slight edge of nine of 17 races, with the ruling Saenuri Party taking the remaining eight. Attention has turned to the interpretation of the results: do they constitute a win or lose, and for whom or which party? Without partaking in the horse-race evaluation of the outcomes, I underline two considerations related to Korea’s local elections that are useful for further examination: first, the significance of local elections for term-limited executives; second, what the outcomes indicate of party-building in South Korea.
One important consideration regarding local elections is the significance of local elections for term-limited presidents. Local elections are often used as barometers of public support for the ruling government, notwithstanding the generally low turnout for these elections that may dent interpretation of how the election outcomes relate to public support. For term-limited presidents – such as in South Korea – these mid-term, off-year elections may take on added significance. On the one hand, they may be useful for rallying legislative support for the remainder of the presidential term to complete the presidential- or party-agenda. On the other, they may also open the door for disenchanted party-members to consider full revolt: witness former President Lee Myung-bak’s difficulties particularly in the latter part of his term, when the president’s declining public support reopened the door for current President Park Geun-hye to return to party leadership and reconstitute the Grand National Party into the Saenuri Party. To the extent that public support affects the legislative success of a president – studies show that presidents’ legislative success is highly tied to public satisfaction1 – a low public approval may lead a legislature to be more willing to challenge the president’s policy agenda. Given this consideration, term-limited executives may need to do more to incorporate public demands onto the presidential agenda to fend off such battles.
Another relevant consideration regarding the local elections is: what do the outcomes reveal about party-building in South Korea? A previous blog post discussed the roles for political parties, and those should certainly be used towards understanding the outcomes. In this post, a narrower question is raised: do the local election results signify a role of political parties as vehicles to mobilize support for elections? The answer, it seems, is: No. Instead, the unexpected turn in the outcome – six weeks ago, the ruling party was expected to make a sweep in the local elections because of the then-high popularity of the president – suggests that political parties remain embryonic. That may be the bigger problem and tougher issue to resolve: almost 27 years since embarking on the democratization process, political parties continue to face challenges in their institutionalization.