March 23, 2017 6:00 pm JST

Revolt from the middle led to Park's demise

Centrist voters are increasingly playing a key role in South Korean politics

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye leaves the prosecutors' office in Seoul after questioning on March 22. (Yonhap,/Kyodo)

TOKYO -- The impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye was people power, pure and simple. Led mainly by those in the middle of the political spectrum, the show of force among the deeply divided country was such that even the Constitutional Court turned its back on the president.

"It is an act that splits the county in two," Yoo Seong-min, a parliamentary member of the conservative opposition Bareun Party, said on March 13, criticizing Park's repeated denial of corruption allegations. The former policy brain in the Park administration is now vying for the presidency.

On Tuesday, Park was questioned for over 20 hours at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office. Outside the building, Park's supporters waved the national flag and chanted that the impeachment was invalid. Next to them were anti-Park protesters who had organized candle-lit rallies in the run-up to her impeachment, holding placards and banners with messages like "arrest her now" or "send her to jail."

After Park's scandals came to light last October, people from civic groups, labor unions and other like-minded persons led anti-Park rallies in central Seoul. Presidential candidates from opposition parties also joined the rallies. "For a total of 133 days, people holding 15 million candles protected South Korea," said Choo Mi-ae, head of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Korea. 

In a July survey by the daily newspaper Seoul Shinmun, 51.7% of respondents identified as centrist, while only 27.6% characterized themselves as conservative and 20.7% as progressive (reformist). Those in their 30s most closely identified with the center. While polls show that over 80% of the country expects a reformist government after Park, middle-of-the-road voters, who form the largest constituency, are growing.

An executive of a South Korean conglomerate said that Park's fate had been sealed since last April's general election. The then-ruling conservative party suffered a surprise defeat because moderate-conservative and independent voters, fed up with internal feuds within the ruling party, shifted to opposition candidates. After the election, the ruling party lost its majority in parliament, allowing opposition parties to steer decision making, including Park's impeachment and criminal charges. Centrist voters, who had until then mostly steered clear of politics, revolted against the government.

A former South Korean government official said the rise of centrist voters means that "the political divide is increasingly becoming one between generations."

Conservatives and reformists frequently clash with each other, but South Korean politics cannot be defined by this dichotomy alone. The growing number of centrist voters will now play a crucial role, carefully evaluating candidates and the new government.

(Nikkei)

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