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Why South Korea's general election means everything for Park

Park Geun-hye   © Getty Images

SEOUL -- Park Geun-hye may have nearly two years left in office, but whether those will be triumphant or tedious for the South Korean president depends largely on how voters cast their ballots on April 13.

     If the general election sees her ruling Saenuri Party secure a majority in the National Assembly, which would likely cause the ranks of the conservative party's pro-Park faction to expand, the administration is expected to continue with -- and probably strengthen -- its hard-line political approach, as exemplified by its stern stance toward North Korea.

     However, if reformist opposition parties bolster their presence in the assembly, the Park government will head into the 2017 presidential election with less political muscle, threatening the president's legacy and limiting her influence. For Park, the upcoming general election is very much a make or break moment.

Kim Moo-sung

     "If we don't win a majority of the seats, President Park's remaining time in office won't be a happy one," Saenuri boss Kim Moo-sung told the media on March 30 when asked about the significance of the upcoming vote. He said it will probably be "the toughest general election in the party's history."

Up for grabs  

Unlike with, say, Japan's lower house of parliament, South Korea's unicameral National Assembly is never dissolved between general elections, which are held once every four years. Of the 300 lawmakers, more than 80% are elected in single-seat constituencies. Saenuri, the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK) and the People's Party -- created in February mainly by MPK defectors -- among others, will be vying for seats in the coming vote.

Kim Chong-in

     For the MPK, economic policy is the biggest campaign issue. Kim Chong-in, head of the party's emergency planning committee, has criticized Park's economic policy as a "total failure," citing hefty household debt -- in excess of 1,200 trillion won ($1.03 trillion) -- and the worst-ever jobless rate, at 12.5% in February for people ages 15 to 29. "The April election is a vote for handing down a ruling on the 'lost eight years' brought by the Saenuri-led government," Kim said recently in a call to rally voter support for the opposition parties.

     The MPK's campaign platform includes the "777 Plan," which aims to raise the ratio of household income in gross national income to over 70% by 2020 from 61.9% in 2014, labor's share of income to over 70% from 68.1%, and the percentage of the population considered middle class to 70% -- a level not seen since 1997 -- from the current level of around 60%.

     The People's Party, formed in February by Ahn Cheol-soo and other MPK defectors, calls for restricting amnesty granted to owners of conglomerates and narrowing the disparity between the rich and poor, men and women, generations and companies.

Ahn Cheol-soo

     In its campaigning, the Saenuri Party is pledging to inject new vigor into Park's key policies, including her "creative economy" policy designed to overhaul South Korea's economic structure by fostering new industries.

     Outside the capital, the party affiliations of voters are well-entrenched and largely divided by region. The key battleground, therefore, is the greater Seoul area, which is the home turf of more than a third of all lawmakers and where party affiliation among voters is largely fluid.

     Zooming in to the politics within Saenuri, another battle can be seen playing out between pro-Park lawmakers -- a minority within the party -- and a group distancing itself from the president. The rift widened when members of the anti-Park group were snubbed in the selection process for the April vote. Many of those lawmakers bolted the party to run as independents. Despite the smaller numbers in the pro-Park faction, it is the source of the majority of Saenuri's candidates.

     The prevailing view is that Park and her loyalists shut out the other group because they felt threatened about what may lie ahead after the election. Even if Saenuri wins the vote, it will not necessarily benefit Park unless her faction grows and takes firmer control of the party.

     In South Korea, the president is limited to one five-year term. Typically, when the president enters the third or fourth year in office, the ruling party's lawmakers and ministers begin turning their attention to the next presidential election. This tends to be the time when any pent-up frustration with the leadership surfaces and the president's approval rating tumbles. Political gridlock stemming from these circumstances often prompts the South Korean leader to ramp up the hard talk toward Japan as a diversion.

     But in recent months, Park has frequently pushed forward with policies and diplomatic strategies in the face of domestic opposition. Examples include abolishing the authorization system for multiple history textbooks in favor of a single government-issued textbook; closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint project with North Korea; and forging an agreement with Japan on the issue of wartime "comfort women."

Moment of truth   

However the election pans out, Park is expected to continue with these policies. But if her party loses, the opposition and other forces opposing Park, such as left-wing citizens groups, will have a stronger voice. Also, her sway over her key supporters within Saenuri will inevitably weaken. Park would be forced to steer the government in far-from-ideal circumstances for nearly two years until her term expires.

     The April election will also serve as a litmus test for potential presidential candidates. Possible names include Kim Moo-sung, head of Saenuri; Moon Jae-in, a former close aide to President Roh Moo-hyun; and Ahn Cheol-soo, former MPK leader and currently co-head of the People's Party. If they fare poorly in the general election, their respective parities will scramble to find new presidential hopefuls, signaling the start of a long race for the leadership.

     How the pro-Park candidates perform at the polls in April will go a long way toward determining how much influence Park will have in choosing her successor.

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