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Rise of New Centrist Politics in South Korea
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By Mark(Won Min) Seo

The world might seem upside down to survivor-conscious Saenuri party leaders who spectacularly blundered the 20th legislative election held on 13 April. The political upheaval dethroned the title, ‘majority’ from the party in power and transferred it to the main opposition party, The Minjoo (‘authentic’ democratic) for the first time in 16 years of South Korean politics. The Minjoo won 123 out of a total of 300 legislative seats, just one more than Saenuri’s 122, followed by a fledgling third party, Kookmin’s 38.

The stunning election result ridiculed most pre-election polls’ specious projections in favor of a big Saenuri win, teaching the country’s self-conceited politicians a lesson about how dreadful the will of the people can be. As a matter of fact, voter turnout for the 20th legislative election was 58%, 4% higher than that of the 19th overall, with a noteworthy increase in the number of young voters between 20 and 40. Pundits attributed this surge to the higher than ever two-digit unemployment rate among ‘dirt spoon’ young people and The Minjoo’s successful strategic use of the ‘economic voting’ frame. What really turned flickers into a conflagration however, is the way President Park Geun-hye dealt with party politics. Once nicknamed the ‘Queen of elections’ in her prior career as Chairwoman of the Hannara party, the predecessor of Saenuri, President Park is often satirized as the ‘Icon of obstinacy’ these days for her unilateral communication with the National Assembly. President Park, through her behind-the-scenes exertion of power over Saenuri leaders, maneuvered the passing of the Anti-terrorist Act in March 2016 without making any negotiation efforts to earn political consent from the opposition parties, provoking dissidents to sublimely sculpt a nine-day filibuster against the Act; the Act strengthens the National Intelligence Service’s investigative authorities in the context of the South-Korea-North-Korea confrontation. Ignoring the omen of the unprecedented filibuster, President Park further rushed to recalibrate the rules of the game that Hannara and herself enacted to please the public just seven months before the 2012 presidential election. The National Assembly Advancement Law was politically calculated to assuage the public’s discontent against the majority party’s frequent unilateral passage of bills by adding statutory requirements, such as third-fifth legislative consent and filibuster, thereby giving minority parties strong veto power.

A significant portion of conservatives turned away from President Park this time due to this distortion of the national-security-centered ‘strong leadership’ frame that had often, in the past, successfully evoked a sense of nostalgia for the president’s father, former president Park Chung-Hee’s rule. Saenuri’s internal conflicts over control of the Candidate Recommendation Committee between the President’s loyalists (so-called Pro-Park) and the clique of revisionists led by major potential presidential candidates (so-called Anti-Park) made the ugly picture even more unpalatable. As a consequence of this turmoil, some conservatives migrated to the center of the political spectrum to instead vote for the opposition parties, resulting in The Minjoo’s predomination over Saenuri, not only in the Metropolitan Seoul and Kyunggi areas but also in Saenuri-dominant districts in the Kyungsang provinces. The trend was irreversible despite Kookmin’s replacement of The Minjoo’s decade-long regional dominance in the South Jeolla province.

An Age of ‘New Centrism’ in South Korean Politics?

Interestingly, the re-emergence of divided government is not a repeat of that which resulted from the 14th, 15th, and 16th legislative elections. Whereas after three decades of military rule, regional party politics under the top-down clientelistic leadership of three prominent elites, the so-called three Kims, had dismantled and stabilized political order during the 90s and the first half of the 00s until the end of the Kim Dae-jung administration, mass politics characterized by programmatic and candidate-centered voting started to become impactful during the 20th legislative election. This gradual rise of nonpartisan electoral behavior, conveyed especially by the dislodging of Saenuri’s loyal supporters, might indicate South Korean voters’ demand for an alternative to the country’s current majoritarian two-party system that has so far thrived from regime change (ten years of Liberal rule to ten years of Conservative rule).

It is not yet feasible to ascertain whether a sustainable multi-party system backed by a coalition government will develop in South Korean politics, since the landscape of such political engineering is still vulnerable to factors like the 2018 presidential election. However, Kookmin’s ascension to the National Assembly explicitly signals South Korean voters’ increasingly centrist tendencies; the party entered the National Assembly with the unexpected capability to exercise bargaining power through a third party ‘casting vote.’ Still tagged as a fragile union between a former IT guru and an elite medical doctor, An Cheol-Soo’s new politics sensation and regionalist consensus in the Jeolla Provinces, Kookmin will further walk a tightrope to compete for party agenda differentiation between The Minjoo on its left and Saenuri on its right.  On the one hand, the party’s elite-level prestige depends on its realpolitik capability to take advantage of its middleman position on thorny economic issues like labor reform. On the other, the brand maintenance of the party’s rationalist public image necessitates consolidation of a new centrist identity reflecting changing voter preferences. For instance, while a majority of South Korean voters are turning into risk-averse seniors, 10% of the country’s population is expected to be foreign-born by 2030. If it manages to skillfully stag-hunt between Saenuri and The Minjoo, and simultaneously expand its mass supporter base, the party will not only play a pivotal role in the possible formation of a coalition government but also pave the way for a sustainable multi-party system in South Korea. Otherwise, the Kookmin phenomenon might be ephemeral, even if it plays a crucial role in a future coalition government, by merely following the precedent of Kim Dae-jung’s ‘A league of their own’ DJP coalition government (1998-2003). Short-lived or long-lasting, burgeoning centrism in South Korean politics, symbolized by Kookmin, is another political experiment amidst the global wave of political polarization.

Won Min(Mark) Seo is a freelance journalist who served as an editor for NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry. He was also a former intern with United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. He holds MA degree in Politics from New York University.

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