South Korea held elections to its 300-members National Assembly on 13 April 2016, the first legislative election following the formation of the People’s Party and the enforcement of controversial Constitutional Court rulings dissolving the left-wing Unified Progressive Party and mandating the redistribution of the Assembly constituencies. The election was held in accordance with Article 34 of the Public Official Election Act, which specifies that Election Day for legislative elections is held on “the first Wednesday from the 50th day before expiration of the (National Assembly members’) term of office”.
As the outcome became known, it turned out to be a sort of political earthquake for the ruling Saenuri Party, which had a slim majority of 152 seats out of 300 in the 2012 elections and its candidate Park Geun-hye won the presidential election that year. As the results poured in, it transpired that the ruling party won just 122 seats, a resounding defeat, while the main opposition Minjoo Party won 123, the most by any party. At the time of the election, the number of Saeunri Party had fallen to 146 out of 292 filled Assembly seats, exactly 50 %. With this, the conservative ruling party’s 16-year parliamentary majority came to an end, with the three opposition parties garnering a combined 167, well over a majority. While the main opposition Minjoo won 123 seats, the splinter opposition People’s Party bagged 38 seats and another six seats went to a small opposition, the Justice Party. Turnout was 58%, an increase of 3.8 percentage points from the 2012 election.
What does the election results mean for the future of the country and what led to this dismal performance by the Saeunri Party? Clearly, the nuclear threat from North Korea and the perceived inability of the Park government to handle it effectively, coupled with a slowing economy led to Saeunri’s ousting from power. The former reason was less important than the latter as it directly impacted peoples’ lives. Most voters were fed up, what they perceived as Park’s authoritarian style of administration, probably having inherited some streaks of her father, former President Park Chung-hee, whose dictatorship is well known. The youth in particular were frustrated because of crippling levels of joblessness. Other factors behind the defeat could be falling exports and high levels of household debt.
The Park government attempted to weaken the legal protection that workers enjoyed if sacked. This angered the workers as it impinged on their security of jobs. The Park administration had been pushing for this as the economy weakened and was less competitive. The opposition also accused the government of being heavy-handed against dissidents and protesters. For example, a left-wing opposition party was banned and its leaders arrested for their alleged sympathies with North Korea. Park government’s economic performance came under scanner, leading to voters’ rejection and therefore North Korea was not the major issue. The Saenuri Party also suffered from factional infighting in its candidate nomination process, which led to public backlash.
Park’s legislative agenda had been bogged down in a parliament deadlocked by feuding and she had blamed both sides for obstructing her push to boost growth, create jobs and make structural reforms. In 2015, the country’s economy grew 2.6% and youth unemployment reached 12.5% in February, the highest since the government started keeping records in 1999, compared with single-digit joblessness in other age groups. These adversely impacted on the ruling party’s performance at the elections.
The ruling party spokesman Ahn Hyoung-hwan was humble to accept the verdict. He observed: “We humbly accept the election results. We will be reborn as the political party that will communicate with people and win their trust.”
In South Korea, the President enjoys immense political power. The polls are crucial in South Korean politics as they shape the legislative landscape for the next four years and gauge public sentiment ahead of presidential race in 2017. Polls will be held in December 2017 to elect a new leader, who will succeed President Park. Park’s single five-year term ends in February 2018 and by law, she cannot seek re-election. The parliamentary election results dent Park’s prospects of seeing her Saenuri party retain the presidency next year. South Korea has a strong presidential system with a national leader who is constitutionally limited to a single term but has control over domestic and foreign policy.
The People’s Party emerged as a clear winner with 38 seats in its kitty. Currently, it has only 22 seats in the outgoing assembly. This strong showing of the party could give a boost to its co-chairman Ahn Cheol-soo’s potential bid for the presidential race in 2017. Ahn, the founder of South Korea’s largest anti-virus software firm, AhnLab, had a strong following, especially among young Koreans due largely to his clean and upright image when he entered the 2012 presidential campaign. He later dropped out. The present result would only embolden Ahn to give it another try.
Indeed, Ahn can emerge as the game changer. His political influence is likely to increase as his party’s powerbase is strategically positioned between the two biggest parties. A three-party system seems a possibility in which People’s Party enjoying balancing influence in the event of the major parties adopt different stances on a bill and suffer conflict. Ahn could raise his profile in the process of legislations as neither of the two major parties securing a majority of seats. A possible three-party system could lead to talks of unity within the opposition bloc in order to put forward a single candidate in the next presidential election.
Was foreign policy a factor in the decisive outcome? There was no sign that this was the case. Going by this argument, the change in the government is unlikely to impact in any adverse way South Korea’s relations with India, despite the fact that India maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea too. India-South Korea ties in the economic, strategic, and defence/security domains have been so mutually rewarding that change in government in either country is inconsequential. The complementarities between the two economies and commonality of interests shall only push both to deepen bilateral ties. This phenomenon is demonstrable by so many high-level visits by political leaders of either country and the flurry of agreements that have been reached over the past two decades or so.
What does Park’s election defeat mean to India’s other important Northeast Asian partner, Japan, and how does this impinges on India-Japan relations? Like above, India’s ties with Japan shall remain unaffected, though Park’s defeat carries some cost for Tokyo. This is because these two important allies of the US are unable to come to terms over history issues. Park administration had hardened Korea’s position on the comfort women and textbook issue that depicted history differently as perceived by Korea. However, the Park administration had initiated measures to settle the comfort women issue. Her defeat could lead to derailing the progress. Now with a divided assembly with a lame-duck administration, Park would be hard pressed to address the pending issues. Her power and clout now would be clipped with reduced support in the assembly, leaving negative impact on Japan-South Korea relations.
Though the comfort women and North Korean issue did not figure prominently in the elections, the opposition Minjoo Party had sought renegotiation of the pact, according to which Japan agreed to set up a foundation to distribute 1 billion Yen to address the issue. With the opposition now in the majority in the assembly, Park is likely to face constant hurdle in passing through important bills. Park is also likely to face difficulty in navigating through Japan-US-South Korea trilateral defence cooperation agreed at the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Park shall face hard days during the remainder of her term.