May 14, 2017 1:00 pm JST

Moon takes office with severe shortage of seats in parliament

South Korea's new president won by large margin, but with only 40% of vote

MASANORI YAMAKUCHI, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in, who was sworn in on Wednesday, was quick to announce his picks for prime minister and high-ranking officials for the Blue House.

Although Moon won by a large margin, he only got 40% of the vote. The new ruling Democratic Party of Korea got only 40% of the seats. In South Korean politics, that 40% is a serious challenge for the new administration.

In his victory speech, Moon repeatedly said he would be a president for all the people, and not just because he had won an election following the unprecedented impeachment and dismissal of his predecessor. But his wording must sound familiar to anyone with an interest in South Korean politics.

At her inauguration in 2012, Park Geun-hye said she wanted to break from the history of division and struggle, and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak in 2007 said he wanted to unite the divided nation. All previous presidents have cited unification as a top priority. Division has always been a problem for South Korea -- conflict between conservatives and liberals, among regions and between generations.

South Korean voters are fairly evenly split -- 40% conservative, 40% liberal and 20% unaffiliated. Although frustration with the conservative government helped Moon win the presidency, he only got 13.42 million votes, or 41%. That was less than in the previous election, when he lost out to Park with 14.69 million, or 48%, of the votes.

Three-fifths principle

That 40% is a keyword for the new administration. The National Assembly Act of 2012 requires three-fifths consent from lawmakers before a bill can be put to a vote during a plenary session, when there is disagreement between the ruling and opposition parties.

When Park first took office, the then-ruling Saenuri Party struggled to realize its campaign pledges of labor, public sector, education and financial reforms, despite the fact that it had a majority in parliament. The Park administration's key labor reform bills and service sector development bills were not even put up for a vote during a plenary session. Eventually, the public got frustrated with the government's inability to take economic measures and turned critical of the government.

Previously, the chairman of the National Assembly, who is from the ruling party, has often presented bills to the entire assembly to force them through, when proceedings stalled in parliamentary committees.

The Saenuri Party passed the National Assembly Act to fend off protests against the turbulent parliament, which often involve street violence and tear gas.

The act made railroading impossible, and bills that the chairman is allowed to submit on his or her own authority were significantly limited to cases of wars and disasters. Therefore, it became virtually impossible to discuss bills that the opposition parties objected to.

Side effects

The new ruling Democratic Party of Korea has only 120 seats in the country's 300-seat parliament. Even combined with the liberal People's Party's 40 seats, the party cannot reach three-fifths of the vote, or 180 seats.

During the presidential campaign, Moon hoped to secure a victory with majority support to suppress conservative opposition with the backing of public opinion. But he was unable to secure sufficient votes.

Furthermore, nomination hearings will also be a big hurdle. If the nominations of the prime minister and other ministers, which require approval of the National Assembly, are delayed, it could also stall the parliamentary proceedings.

Under the Park administration, some prime ministerial candidates were forced to decline Park's nominations due to potentially scandalous personal issues and controversial remarks. Prime ministers also stepped down to take responsibility for the 2014 ferry accident and a funding scandal.

Hwang Kyo-ahn -- who served as acting prime minister and president following Park's dismissal -- also stepped down in the process of Park's impeachment. That weakened the government base.

More than 1,000 so-called "polifessors," scholars who desire positions in the new administration, have reportedly flocked to Moon's camp. Moon -- who took the lead early on in the election campaign -- had mulled proposals for the key positions for the new administration from the start.

'Weakest administration ever'

If Moon had won a majority in the presidential election, he could have gained the ability to railroad congressional approval. But things did not proceed as he's hoped.

He pledged to steer parliamentary proceedings through alliances with the People's Party and other progressive parties, as well as through bipartisan recruitment, but as it stands, nominations for major posts could be delayed until September, when the regular session of the parliament begins. Yonhap News Agency reported that Moon could have the weakest administration in South Korea's constitutional history.

On his first day in office, Moon nominated South Jeolla Province Gov. Lee Nak-yon for prime minister. Moon had argued that South Korea should renegotiate the Tokyo-Seoul agreement over the comfort woman issue, but appointing Lee -- who was once the Tokyo correspondent at a major newspaper and has long served as an executive of the South Korea-Japan Lawmakers League -- suggests a positive stance toward strengthening the relationship between the two countries.

If Moon cannot take full control of the parliament, however, he could end up repeating his predecessors' mistake of pumping up anti-Japanese sentiment to please public opinion every time they faced domestic turmoil.

The late former President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon's mentor, bitterly criticized then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine and other acts. However, Roh said he envied Koizumi for his ability to dissolve the lower house to pursue his postal reforms because the South Korean president does not have the right to do so.

South Korean presidents do not have the right to dissolve the parliament and there will be no general elections until April 2020. The focus now is on whether Moon, who closely observed Roh's anguish, has a plan for breaking the 40% mark in his approval rating and securing the backing of parliament.

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