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South Korean vote in play as presidential campaign winds up

Party, regional loyalties count less but governance challenges await winner

| South Korea
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South Korean presidential candidates pose for a photo before a televised debate in Seoul on April 28.   © Reuters

The South Korean public feels energized and empowered. The public protests that helped drive President Park Geun-hye from office in March have sustained interest in politics, leading to expectations of strong voter turnout when her successor is chosen next Tuesday. Perhaps the greatest indication of this is the record number of overseas Koreans, nearly 300,000, who have registered to vote absentee.

With many voters free from the often-heavy baggage of party and regional loyalties, swing voters will play a more pronounced role than in the past. Historically, South Korea has boasted a high rate of voter turnout. Participation in the last four presidential elections ranged from a low of 63% in 2007 to a high of 81% in 1997. In Park's 2012 election win, turnout was a solid 76%.

In last year's legislative elections, almost 60% of eligible South Koreans voted. By comparison, turnout for U.S. presidential elections since 1972 has ranged from 49% to 57%.

Next week's vote could see turnout top the level seen in 1997. With public demonstrations every weekend during the months leading up to Park's impeachment over corruption and abuse-of-power charges last December, many citizens who normally might not have voted feel compelled to participate in this unique moment in South Korea's modern history.

Such voters are mostly neither party loyalists nor deeply interested in politics. Moreover, while South Korean voters have in the past typically supported candidates from their own region, regardless of party, this time both leading candidates -- Moon Jae-in, who was previously chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, and doctor-turned-technology mogul Ahn Cheol-soo -- hail from the southeastern region of Yeongnam.

Though Hong Jun-pyo, the candidate from the main conservative party has gained momentum recently due to his hard-line stance in the wake of increased North Korean provocations, he has no realistic chance of winning. This poses a dilemma for conservative voters. Will they stay home, cast a symbolic vote for Hong, or pick between Moon and Ahn? If the last, many will likely go for Ahn as the more palatable of the two frontrunners.

Electoral calculus

Expected high turnout, a lack of a regional factor and the potential defection of conservative voters is helping shape the electoral math between frontrunners Moon and Ahn. As the establishment liberal candidate, Moon's numbers have been relatively stable, with few additional voters gained even after he defeated his main two rivals for the nomination of the Democratic Party of Korea.

With five principal candidates on the ballot and no minimum threshold for victory, the winner's vote share may fall well below 50%. Thus, even though Moon has been unable to pick up any sustained momentum, he can still win without meaningful swing votes as long as those voters also do not rally to Ahn; Ahn has slipped in recent polls following his poor performance in candidate debates.

Upon arrival at the Blue House, the president's official residence and office, the successful candidate will next face the challenge of how to implement a meaningful policy agenda. The balkanization of the National Assembly as a result of the break-up of the country's major liberal and conservative parties over recent years means implementing legislation may remain difficult.

Moon's Democratic Party holds 119 of 300 seats, giving it the largest single bloc in the National Assembly, but not enough on its own to legislate effectively. If Ahn prevails, he will face an even greater challenge since his People's Party holds only 40 seats.

The likelihood of consistent cooperation between the two candidate's parties -- which were one until early 2016 -- is uncertain at best. Ahn's faction split off to form its own party because of the leadership conflict between him and Moon.

A similar dynamic exists among conservatives as well. Amidst Park's impeachment, her Saenuri Party essentially broke in two. Hong Jun-pyo represents the Liberty Korea Party consisting of Park's former Saenuri supporters. Presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min leads the splinter Bareun Party. The fate of Bareun remains uncertain, with the recent resignation of 12 of its 32 legislators, ostensibly to join Liberty Korea. Conservatives will face a challenge in coordinating their response to what will likely be a liberal president.

With Moon currently positioned as South Korea's next president, this is only the beginning of the fight. Without a clear electoral mandate, the new leader will face opposition from conservative parties, some level of resistance from other liberal parties and a plethora of domestic and foreign policy problems.

This is less than ideal for a new leader who will have to concurrently deal with China, U.S. President Donald Trump, reform of South Korea's powerful conglomerates and a newly engaged polity which is expecting change. In particular, policy toward North Korea has garnered much focus during recent presidential debates. If Moon wins, he will likely revisit aspects of Roh's peaceful and engagement-focused Sunshine Policy toward the north, a stance diametrically opposed to the aggressive posture the Trump administration seems to be adopting with Pyongyang.

As has been the case with many recent issues in South Korea, uncertainty is the status quo. For the new president, expectations will be high. Unfortunately, the political terrain is such that it already seems the next president will follow a long line of predecessors ordained to exit the Blue House with lackluster approval.

David S. Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong School of Business.

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