Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press
Release Date May 2012
The ruling Saenuri Party won a surprise majority in South Korea's National Assembly elections last month. This victory went against all expectations. Prior to the election, experts unanimously predicted the Saenuri Party would again suffer defeat following their loss in the October 2011 by-election for the mayor of Seoul. Election day exit polls had forecast conservatives would win no more than 120 seats. However, the Saenuri Party won 152 of the 300 seats in the South Korean parliament, while the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) won 127 and its liberal coalition partner the far-left United Progressive Party (UPP) clinched 13.
Given the apparent disarray within the ruling party only months before the election, and despite losing twenty seats in this vote, securing a bare majority of 152 seats seems like a great victory. Saenuri Party chairwoman Park Geun-hye's leadership is widely credited as the main factor behind this surprising result. The South Korean media hailed Park's role in headlines proclaiming a "return of the election queen" after October's defeat in the race for Seoul mayor.
But Park should not get all the credit for this surprising election result since the outcome is also a reflection of the failure of liberals to implement an effective campaign strategy. Thus, the outcome does not guarantee that the conservative candidate will have the advantage in December's presidential campaign.
South Korean parliamentary elections normally serve as an evaluation of the incumbent administration. The Saenuri Party was considered significantly disadvantaged given the Lee Myung-bak government's widespread unpopularity. In addition to public discontent with economic and living conditions, the Lee government has been accused of favoring big businesses and allowing them to profit at the expense of smaller firms. The Lee government was also subject to heavy opposition and public attack due to scandals involving Lee Myung-bak's top aides and recent accusations of the prime minister's office conducting illicit surveillance of private citizens.
Because South Korean parliamentary terms are four years and the presidential term is five years, parliamentary elections precede presidential elections only once every twenty years. This year, the National Assembly elections occurred months prior to South Korea's December presidential elections. The voting was seen as a means to pass judgment not only on the incumbent Lee administration, but also on party leaders who are considered presidential candidates. It gave Park and the Saenuri Party an opportunity to overcome public discontent with Lee. Under Park's leadership, the conservatives adopted a strategy that distanced the party from the Lee government. Furthermore, Park burnished her credentials both as party leader and as the likely presidential candidate. These factors helped the ruling Saenuri Party shift the focus of this vote from a referendum on the current president to anticipation regarding who will come next.
The DUP-led opposition coalition attempted to capitalize on Lee's apparent unpopularity, but it failed to establish its credentials as a viable alternative government. The DUP joined forces with the far-left UPP and civil organizations to create a coalition that fielded only one liberal candidate in each district. However, as the price for forging this alliance, the DUP adopted the more radical policy positions of its partners. This led DUP leaders Han Myung-sook and Chung Dong-young to flip their stances on certain matters, such as the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA) and the construction of a naval base in Jeju province. Both Han and Chung campaigned against the two issues, which they had supported in 2007 as ministers in the Roh Moo-hyun government. The DUP movement to the left and the actual reversal of positions by its leaders alienated many swing voters.
The struggle within the DUP-led progressive coalition also disappointed many voters. As prospects for an opposition win had improved after the October 2010 by-elections and Lee's declining popularity, different factions within the DUP vied for party leadership by nominating as many candidates as possible from their own factions.
In addition, opposition leaders made poor decisions that damaged their credibility. UPP co-leader Lee Jung-hee initially refused to rescind her candidacy when she was accused of vote fixing in her district primary. Though she was finally forced to resign, this decision came too late. The DUP leadership also made the mistake of continuing to support Kim Yong-min, a host of one of Korea's most popular podcasts, a political parody critical of Lee Myung-bak. Hoping that the show's fame would attract young voters in Seoul, the DUP leadership hesitantly allowed Kim to remain the party's candidate even after public uproar about offensive jokes he made long before his entry into politics. Ultimately, the liberal coalition suffered significant losses in public support despite Lee Myung-bak's declining popularity.
Finally, the DUP and UPP strategy to use anti–KORUS FTA and naval base positions to benefit from anti-U.S. sentiments failed. This line of attack had helped liberal president Roh achieve victory in 2007, but its success was due in part to public anger at the time regarding the acquittal of two U.S. soldiers involved in the deaths of two Korean middle-school girls. However, the KORUS FTA and naval base issues inspired rational analysis and debate instead of mobilizing a mass emotional movement to vote liberal as a protest against the United States.
Despite the conservative victory and liberal defeat this election, Park's path to the presidency is still uncertain. The Saenuri Party's ability to win a majority in the next National Assembly had much to do with Korean election procedures. Among 300 seats in parliament, 246 are filled by the winner of single member district elections and 54 by proportional representation (PR). The Saenuri Party gained 127, or 51.6 percent, of the district seats. However, the proportion of all votes cast to Saenuri Party candidates was only 43.3 percent, whereas the combined percentage of votes cast to DUP and UPP candidates was 43.9 percent. The Saenuri Party only received 42.8 percent of the PR vote, and the DUP and UPP together received 46.8 percent. These numbers suggest that Park still faces an uphill struggle for the presidency rather than that the presidential election is Park's to lose. The ruling party win will also serve as an obstacle to radical changes in South Korea's policy direction since South Korea's next president will need political support from the National Assembly to implement a new policy agenda.