The South Korean Elections

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute)



It has been a wild and wooly political season in the South, with implications for North-South relations. We have noted that both parties—but particularly the GNP/Saenuri—have been remaking themselves to capture swing voters. Although foreign policy issues are much less salient than foreign pundits would like to think, LMB’s tough strategy toward the North did not get high marks from anyone except an older demographic. Public opinion on the North remains polarized and the GNP was making adjustments; Park Geun Hye's Foreign Affairs piece from last fall was an early signal of the makeover. Or at least it was making adjustments until the threat of missile and nuclear tests provided an opportunity to tack back to the right. Saenuri candidates accused the DUP and progressives of being soft on North Korea and hostile to the alliance and KORUS. Did the North Koreans contribute to the last minute swing to the right? In a future post, we will sift through the tea leaves of the exit polls.

Before turning to some analysis, some election law basics and the headline numbers. The National Assembly is a unicameral legislature that sits on a four year cycle that is non-concurrent with the five year presidential election cycle. The two elections just happen to fall in the same year in 2012, with the presidential elections coming up in December; thus the heightened interest. All 300 seats were contested, 246 district seats decided by plurality and 54 from party lists allocated according to the share of the separate party list votes. The math is easy: 151 legislators are needed to have an outright majority or to form a majority coalition. The ruling Saenuri party enjoyed an outright majority in the 18th Assembly with about 55% of the seats. The DUP held 27% with the remainder split between small parties and independents. In advance of the elections, however, the DUP formed an electoral alliance with the United Progressive Party by agreeing to field a single candidate in each of the district elections to avoid vote-splitting. The picture was further complicated by the late entry of a number of small parties and independents as well.

At 54.3%, turnout was up fairly sharply from 2008 (46.1%); the opposition was hoping for still more. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Saenuri managed to win an outright majority of seats, taking 152. The DUP will hold 127 seats, the UPP 13; the two tables below provide the detail on the district and proportional seats and compare the results with the composition of the 18th National Assembly on the eve of the election. Although the Saenuri lost 10 seats, a striking feature of the election was the consolidation of both the left and right blocs. The DUP picked up no less than 47 seats and the UPP—well to its left—nearly doubled its representation. But there was a sharp decline in independent candidates as well, with at least some going to the Saenuri, and the right-wing LFP’s seat share declined dramatically. The figures make the point graphically; this will be a closely divided National Assembly with lively debates likely on the naval base in Jeju, KORUS FTA, and social welfare policies.


We start with some background on the headwinds the two parties have been facing, thanks in no small measure to a typically thorough overview provided by the International Crisis Group’s Dan Pinkston at last week’s International Studies Association meetings. We then look at some preliminary information from exit polling.

GNP Headwinds

At the onset of the political season, the GNP/Saenuri had seen a tough year. In January 2011, the party enjoyed a 42.3% to 28.1% approval advantage over the DP/DUP in polling done by EAI (in Korean). A year later, the DP/DUP had not so much surged ahead as the GNP/Saenuri had fallen; the opposition enjoyed a slim 33.3% to 30.2% advantage, basically within the margin of error. The eve-of-election analysis--even when colored by partisan loyalties--suggested many races were too close to call.

The April 2011 by-elections had already shown ruling party weakness, but the shock event was the Seoul mayoral election of October 2011. GNP mayor Oh Se Hun was forced to resign by gambling his office on a controversial school lunch program vote. The subsequent race was upended when the highly popular independent entrepreneur Ahn Chol-su backed another independent, Pak Won-sun, who handed a solid defeat to the GNP candidate. The Seoul election jolted the GNP into action, and the party undertook a major effort at rebranding we described in an earlier post. Of particular interest to us was the effort to tack to the center not only on growth and jobs—by far the most salient issue to voters—but also on DP/DUP issues such as social policy and increased voter concern about polarization and increasing inequality.

What had gone wrong? Observers of Korean democracy have long noted that the popularity of incumbent presidents—who are limited to a single five-year term--tends to undergo a near-secular decline from the time they take office. But some of the pain was self-inflicted. The LMB administration faced a string of embarrassing corruption scandals that virtually branded the party: bribery of two Senior Presidential Secretaries for shielding a Pusan savings bank from closer regulatory scrutiny; a stock-rigging scandal at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; a cyber-attack on the National Election Commission’s website by GNP aides during the Seoul mayoral election, with charges of vote rigging; a vote-buying scandal that implicated the National Assembly Speaker and former party leader.

Just prior to the election, the country was hit by another major scandal that fit broadly with the corruption optic on the ruling party. Evidence surfaced that the government was involved in surveillance not only of National Assembly members and high-ranking bureaucrats but of private individuals, including liberal celebrities, NGO and labor leaders, businessmen and—perhaps most damaging of all—journalists. Moreover, the charges—which originally surfaced in 2008 (see here and here)—suggested not only that the prime minister's office was involved but that the Blue House itself knew of the operation and that the nominally-independent Prosecutor's Office had turned a blind eye to it. The Blue House fought back by noting that only 20% of the cases occurred during the LMB administration and that many had their origins in the Roh Moo Hyun period, connected initially with an effort to vet political appointees and monitor government corruption. But when combined with the string of corruption scandals, the timing of the revelations could not have been worse and the DUP and progressives pushed their advantage.

A last minute poll by EAI (in Korean) lists the rank ordering of the issues that voters think were most important for the election as of early April; the surveillance scandal mattered: economic growth (22.4%) followed by local development (17.8%), the surveillance scandal (13.4%), social welfare (13.3%), the KORUS FTA (12.1%), the North Korean nuclear threat (8.7%), Chaebol reform (5.4%), and the unification of the two main opposition parties on the left (4%).

The main longer-term worry facing the party is demographic. As in past elections—particularly of Roh Moo Hyun— recent polling data (in Korean) shows a marked difference in preferences between the younger and older voters. While those who are in their 50s and above (about 40% of the entire electorate) show a strong preference over the Saenuri Party, the DUP seems to do much better in terms of the remaining younger South Korean voters. This is why the opposition was hoping for a higher turnout.

An interesting cultural manifestation of youth discontent is the emergence of a highly-popular audio broadcast titled "I Am a Weasel” (as in “a jerk,” Nanun Koemsuda) which has become a sensation in the 20-40 demographic, topping the iTunes charts and even gaining international fame. Like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, the podcasts combine satire with a serious spin on the news, including a more or less open effort to discredit the LMB government. Among the topics on recent shows have been persisting charges of LMB’s involvement in a financial scam—which got one of the show’s hosts sentenced to jail—revisiting the Cheonan investigation, vote-rigging during the Seoul mayoral by-election, and of course the surveillance scandal.

Headwinds on the Left

The DUP had a lot of ground to make up to get to a majority, and its desire to do so led to form a strategic alliance with the UPP. Such agreements are tough to forge because they require parties to forego fielding candidates in districts where both parties are active. Out of 246 electoral districts, the UPP convinced the DUP not to field candidates or won joint primaries in 34 constituencies. In return, the UPP agreed not to run against the DUP in 60 constituencies nationwide. The alliance may not have led to a majority but it clearly had the effect of avoiding the dilution of the left vote. The issue is whether the alliance tarnished the DUP’s image with centrist voters and conversely whether the UPP’s compromises sit well with its more leftist base. Will it hold? Examples abound of the two-edge sword of the alliance. My colleague Marc Noland has already ranted about the National Assembly shenanigans on the KORUS and the issues involved in the DUP’s proposed renegotiation; the UPP wants to scrap the KORUS altogether.

DUP candidate Kim Yong Min was partly catapulted to fame as a host of the “I Am a Weasel” show but got into trouble over language he used to condemn the US over Abu Ghraib. He was asked to withdraw his candidacy by the DUP leadership but competed nonetheless and lost. Perhaps because it was the last scandal prior to election day, this little drama provided the ruling party an opportunity to highlight the fact that opposition candidates were not ready to be serious legislators. What a leftist Korean Sarah Palin would call the “lamestream media”—Chosun Ilbo, Donga Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo—sought to tar the DUP with Kim’s more flowery remarks, including in tendentious “news” stories (for example, from Joongang.)

The DUP platform on North Korea upholds the Kim Dae Jung-Roh Moo Hyun legacy by arguing the two summit documents should be recognized as binding. This position is a little harder to sell post-Cheonan and Yeonpyeong and the party has quite naturally tried to downplay the issue.

A final problem for the left was that a lot of the ideological differences between the DUP and UPP were aired in the course of the nomination and primary process, and in ways that probably did not comfort the median voter. The new DUP leadership showed much less ability to control the process than Park Geun Hye, daughter of former president Park Chung Hee, the leader of the Saenuri and still probably the front runner for the presidency in December. Despite quite obvious signs of discontent with the LMB administration, the left still lacks a unifying figure for the upcoming presidential election.


Regionalism has long played an important role in Korean politics, with a long-standing split between the southwest (Cheolla Province, or Honam)—where the DUP (yellow) and the UPP (purple) dominated--and the southeast (Kyongsang Province, or Yongnam and including both Taegu and Pusan) where the Saenuri (red) won; the conservatives also won in the more sparsely populated northeast districts. Perhaps with the exception of Kangwon, this outcome was not a big surprise. But given its tremendous size, metropolitan Seoul should now be considered a distinctive “region” in its own right. The DUP and the UPP came out with a healthy victory in Seoul, taking 30 and 2 seats respectively while the Saenuri only took 16, most of them being concentrated around Kangnam where most of the wealthy, conservative, neighborhoods are located (the small inset).

Looking Ahead: Impact on the Presidential Race

Despite the loss of seats, the victory of the Saenuri Party in the National Assembly elections has changed the dynamics of the presidential race. LMB tried to keep a low profile and Park Geun Hye emerged as the big personal winner. EAI (in Korean) provides an overview of public opinion on the presidential race. Park Geun Hye’s approval ratings tracked the GNP/Saenuri and were on a downward slope since last September. After the initial swoon at the time of the Seoul mayoral election, Ahn Chul Soo’s standing remained constant while Moon Jae In, the former chief of staff for President Roh Moo Hyun and a senior counselor for the DUP, was slowly gaining ground. With a lot of “undecideds,” Park still led the pack when all three potential candidates were considered (26.7% followed by Ahn at 23.6% and Moon at 11.1%. But in pairwise contest, Ahn trumped Park strongly (49-36) although Park retained an advantage vis-à-vis the DUP’s Moon (47-35).

But after the National Assembly elections, presidential expectations for Park Geun Hye are once again on the rise. The left can look at the fact that they gained a lot of seats; the combined DUP and UPP party votes (46.8%) exceeded the Saenuri’s (42.8%). This will provide a good reason to continue the strategic opposition alliance through the elections. But coordinating around National Assembly elections is different than coordinating around a presidential one, where personalities matter. Challenged by the lack of unity, the left still does not have a compelling candidate. Much depends on what Ahn chooses to do. If the DUP cannot snag him as a candidate, they will seek an endorsement. Would such an endorsement be enough to propel Moon to the presidency? We are dubious; the party makeovers have done a better job of positioning Park Geun Hye with the median voter than they have with respect to the still-fractious left.

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