As Korea’s general elections near, punishing government takes priority over policies

Posted on : 2024-04-08 17:02 KST Modified on : 2024-04-08 17:24 KST
Public dissatisfaction with the ruling camp looms over everything else in the lead-up to this week’s National Assembly elections
President Yoon Suk-yeol casts his vote at an early polling site in Busan on April 4, 2024, the start of early voting for Korea’s National Assembly elections. (pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol casts his vote at an early polling site in Busan on April 4, 2024, the start of early voting for Korea’s National Assembly elections. (pool photo)

Three days ahead of the April 10 general election, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and opposition parties clashed fiercely on Sunday, with both sides calling on voters to “pass judgment” against the opposition and administration, respectively.

The PPP pleaded with voters to “stop the dictatorship” of an opposition holding 200 seats in the National Assembly, while the Democratic Party asked them to “take President Yoon Suk-yeol to the woodshed.”

But while both sides are emphasizing the need to hold the other to account, the most prominent feature of the election as shown in opinion polls is how it has developed into basically the first in history where the “referendum on the administration” frame has overshadowed any specific policies or issues.

In a call for support on Sunday, Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung said, “We need to show them that they can’t survive when they defy the public.”

Cho Kuk, the leader of the newly formed opposition Rebuilding Korea Party, urged supporters to vote by saying, “I think the public has been desperately wanting to cast a vote over the past two years, and I think it’s because they want to pass judgment on the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.”

Indeed, the framing of this week’s elections as a referendum on the Yoon administration has been a consistent thread in the opposition’s messaging during the election campaign.

In response, Han Dong-hoon, the chairperson of the PPP’s emergency leadership committee, made a last-minute push to rally votes by urging voters to “stop the dictatorship of criminals.” His use of the “criminals” label for Lee and Cho — both of whom are facing trials — was a continuation of an ongoing frame calling on the public to pass judgment on them.

Han also continued his ideological attacks by calling the Rebuilding Korea Party’s pledge for an “advanced nation in terms of social rights” as “Cho Kuk-style socialism.”

But the frame of sending a message to the opposition does not appear likely to carry as much weight as the frame calling the administration to account.

Findings from a Gallup Korea survey conducted on March 26–28 with interviews of 1,001 voting-age South Koreans nationwide via mobile phone found 40% expressing support for the administration and 49% supporting efforts to “contain” it.

The results showed that the tide of support for containing the administration could not be turned even at a time when public opinion was buzzing over the risks posed by certain Democratic Party candidates, with controversies over remarks by Kim Jun-hyuk (running for the Suwon-D seat in Gyeonggi Province) and a questionable loan by Yang Moon-seok (Ansan-A, Gyeonggi Province).

It was the same during the controversy surrounding the Democratic Party’s campaign pledges this past February and March.

The Justice Party has called for President Yoon Suk-yeol’s impeachment, while the Rebuilding Korea Party has called for “the end of Yoon Suk-yeol’s dictatorship by prosecutors.” Many in the political opposition are openly calling for Yoon to be impeached or resign, attempting to lay the grounds for a political reckoning that sends a harsh message to the current administration. 

Meanwhile, People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon has repeatedly alluded to Hitler while urging voters to “prevent the rise of the opposition’s dictatorship,” essentially trying to tap into the same instincts of judgment and retribution.

This call for a political judgment day is usually the opposition’s main play when approaching an election, yet it rarely has the desired effect. During the 2004 general election of the Roh Moo-hyun era, the ruling Uri Party secured a National Assembly majority with 152 seats. Since then, the tendency has been for the ruling party to win general elections. 

As the main opposition at the time, the Democratic Party decided to stress “economic democratization” instead of political retribution in 2016. The ruling Saenuri Party lost the parliamentary majority by one seat due to the outside People Party splitting the vote. That has been the only case thus far of the opposition winning a National Assembly majority during a general election.

This time around, however, the atmosphere of using this election as a midterm referendum on the current administration has overpowered the traditional policy arguments and negative campaigning. The judgment day narrative seems to be gaining even more traction as election day approaches. 

Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, Yoon’s opponent during the presidential election in 2022, is still a viable rival, turning this general election into a sort of “Presidential Election Season 2.” Cho Kuk’s founding of the Rebuilding Korea Party last month also reignited the atmosphere of political retribution against the Yoon administration. The controversy leading up to former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup resigning as the ambassador to Australia, less than a month after his appointment, added fuel to the fire. Yoon personally stoked the flames by showing he was out of touch with Koreans’ cost-of-living woes with comments about “reasonable” green onion prices during a visit to a grocery store where bunches of the aromatic were being sold at a heavy discount. 

Lee Kwan-hu, a professor at Konkuk University's Sang-huh College, diagnosed the green onion incident as “a reflection of Yoon’s failure to recognize the real-life struggles of the average citizen, something you can’t fully grasp by examining economic charts.”

Some observers also point to Yoon’s response to the collective walkouts and resignations of medical residents and interns.

“By refusing to budge on the specific number of medical students the government wishes to add to the annual admissions quota during his presidential address to the public, President Yoon gave the impression of being stubborn and inflexible, essentially telling voters that a vote for the ruling party will only exacerbate his obstinacy,” said Yoon Tae-gon, the director of political analysis at the consultancy The Moa.

Naturally, the public mood surrounding the opposition is not exactly friendly — but public dissatisfaction over the ruling camp still looms over everything else.

“Controversy over the Democratic Party’s campaign pledges or improper statements made by party members reflect surface-level dissatisfaction among voters, but overall discontent with the ruling party reflects a deeper dissatisfaction that’s not overtly visible. It’s this deeper dissatisfaction that’s very difficult to address.

Amid this atmosphere of teaching the administration and ruling camp a lesson, observers are also lamenting the lack of a proper debate concerning actual policies and measures directly tied to public livelihood.

“In an era where climate change poses an existential crisis, the current election cycle has left climate change — or any policy discussion, for that matter — completely out of the discussion. It’s a very dismal scene. Everything is centered around the moral character of the main political leaders on both sides of the aisle, and on calls for their removal,” said Kim Jun-woo, the head of the Justice Party’s campaign headquarters.

By Um Ji-won, staff reporter; Kang Jae-gu, staff reporter

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