5 variables that will determine the outcome of Korea’s upcoming general election

Posted on : 2024-01-03 17:16 KST Modified on : 2024-01-03 17:24 KST
Koreans will cast their ballots for representatives in the National Assembly on April 10 — here’s what you need to know going into the election
The National Assembly building in Seoul’s Yeouido. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
The National Assembly building in Seoul’s Yeouido. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)

Monday marked exactly 100 days before South Korea will head to the ballot box on April 10 to choose who will represent it in the 22nd National Assembly for the next four years to come.

As the opposition campaigns on “holding the administration to account” and the ruling party is on a mission to “rein in the opposition party’s huge parliamentary majority,” election year is unfolding in an almost unheard-of scenario with former party leaders on both sides moving to establish their own new parties.

The next 98-odd days are poised to become an all-out battle for hearts and minds by President Yoon Suk-yeol, who is reaching the midpoint of his term; the ruling People Power Party (PPP), which under interim leader Han Dong-hoon has been demanding that the chief opposition Democratic Party be “tried in the court of public opinion”; the Democratic Party under leader Lee Jae-myung, with its calls to curb the administration’s excesses; and third forces attempting to take advantage of opportunities in a political framework dominated by two major parties.

Lee Nak-yon, a former prime minister who led the Democratic Party in late 2020 through early 2021, plans to declare his withdrawal from the top opposition party and establish a new one within the week, sources close to him said on Sunday.

In a meeting with Lee Nak-yon on Saturday, Lee Jae-myung rejected his calls to step down as current party leader and form an integrated emergency committee, prompting him to announce to reports that he would follow his “own path.”

Former PPP leader Lee Jun-seok had previously announced plans to establish a new party, tentatively named the “New Reform Party.”

With the electoral system still unfinalized, some have been raising the possibility of forming ruling and opposition party leaders joining forces — further compounding the complexities at play in the election.

Describing the situation as an “election with a whole lot of variables,” Incheon National University professor Lee Jun-han said, “If it turns out to be an interim assessment of the administration, the ruling party will be beaten soundly, but the opposition will have problems on its hands if it doesn’t carry out reforms." 

Yoon Suk-yeol himself is likely to be a key variable determining the election’s outcome. Coming as he wraps up the second full year of his term, the election will be something of a referendum on his performance to date.

With around 60% of South Koreans expressing negative opinions on his job performance, opinion polls suggest the idea of “holding the administration accountable” with the election has been resonating the strongest.

Embrain Public, Kstat Research, Korea Research, and Hankook Research polled 1,002 South Korean adults from Dec. 18 to 20 for its national barometer survey on the 2024 general election. Among the respondents, 45% agreed with the notion that the opposition “needs to be empowered to check the current administration and ruling party.” Conversely, 43% of respondents agreed with the sentiment that the current administration “needs to become more empowered to carry out its policies more effectively.”

There was a much larger gap in the survey conducted by Gallup Korea from Dec. 5 to 7, in which 51% of respondents wanted to check the current administration, while 35% wanted to empower it.  

Negative public perceptions of first lady Kim Keon-hee will also be an obstacle to the current administration in the upcoming election. On Thursday, an opposition-majority National Assembly approved a motion to assign a special prosecutor to look into allegations that the first lady participated in stock manipulation. The president, however, is expected to veto it.

“The first lady currently poses the biggest risk for our party,” said a lawmaker for the People Power Party, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The presidential office is going to do everything in its power to deflect attention away from the first lady by crafting a narrative that encourages a prospective vote [on who is most capable of taking responsibility going forward], rather than a retrospective vote [judging the current administration],” assessed Chae Jin-won, a professor at Kyung Hee University’s Institute of Public Governance.  

The People Power Party seems to be betting on the questionable ability of surveys and polls to predict outcomes of general elections thus far.

In the nine general elections between 1988 and 2020, the ruling party failed to secure a National Assembly majority only twice: during the third year of the Kim Dae-jung administration (2000) and the fourth year of the Park Geun-hye administration (2016). Ruling parties have generally managed to maintain power by undergoing internal reforms or due to external factors like the impeachment of Park Geun-hye and COVID-19 response by the Moon administration that had ramifications for the 2020 election. The Lee Myung-bak administration had a dismal 20% approval rating in its fifth year (2012), but the Saenuri Party and Park Geun-hye, the party’s interim leader at the time, effectively differentiated themselves from Lee in their campaigns. Saenuri managed to secure a National Assembly majority with 152 seats that year.

In that respect, the success of the People Power Party and interim leader Han Dong-hoon in this year’s general election will likely depend on their ability to publicly differentiate themselves from President Yoon Suk-yeol, whose approval ratings are dipping. The political future of Han, a potential future presidential candidate, stands to be made or broken by the results of the upcoming election. The People Power Party is in an awkward position, however, as Yoon still has a significant chunk of his term left — yet if Han doesn’t shift away from his position of the president and the ruling party being “mutually cooperative partners,” critics say his party will likely suffer in the general.

“Essentially, the top-down relationship between the presidential office and the ruling party caused the party to lose the by-election for Seoul’s Gangseo District. The interim leader was appointed to fix that issue, but if Han just acts as Yoon’s avatar, then the general election will prove difficult for him,” said a People Power Party lawmaker representing a constituency in Gyeongsang Province.

If Han, despite vowing to enact reforms in the candidate nomination process, nominates those who’ve served in Yoon’s administration or former prosecutors to run in the upcoming election, voters will likely turn against him and the ruling party.

The People Power Party is calling on the people to check what it sees as an oversized Democratic Party that constantly interferes in national affairs. The Democratic Party is indeed facing division and a number of internal disputes over issues like the “idle” leadership of Lee Jae-myung, who has failed to present any clear policy alternatives; growing the division and possibility of splintering posed by former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s call to create a new party; worsening factionalism within the party ahead of fielding candidates for office; the party’s failure to live up to promises to create a system of “semi-mixed-member proportional representation”; and the issue of aggressive fan-like supporters who don’t represent the feelings of the broader public.

If the Democratic Party doesn’t sort these internal issues out, the public’s wrath may turn on itself rather than the ruling party.

The legal scandals engulfing Lee Jae-myung also pose major risks for his leadership of the party. Lee is constantly going in and out of court to face corruption charges linked to the Seongnam Football Club and development projects in the neighborhoods of Daejang and Baekhyeon in Seongnam, and the “new town” of Wirye. He is also facing charges of suborning perjury, and the court is likely to announce the pertaining verdict before the general election.

Prosecutors are also expected to ramp up their investigation of over 20 Democratic Party lawmakers regarding allegations that votes for party leader were bought via cash-filled envelopes at the 2021 party convention.

“Although I personally support Lee, there is a growing viewpoint that it would be better for both Lee and the party if he took one for the team and resigned,” said a prominent Democratic Party lawmaker who represents a constituency in the greater Seoul area.

“Calls for Lee’s resignation will continue right up to the general election,” the lawmaker said.

Lee has acknowledged that the general election will determine his political future, including prospects for another presidential campaign. 

By Seo Young-ji, staff reporter; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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