Moon tide washes local elections as Korea conservatives face crisis

North Korea peace process fires a strong electoral victory

Kyle Pope

PHOTO: EPA/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT

Government and governance | Asia, East Asia

15 June 2018

Moon Jae-in’s Minjoo party rode overwhelming public approval for the President to a strong electoral victory that has left the country’s opposition parties reeling, Kyle Pope writes.

The President of South Korea is prohibited by law from campaigning on behalf of candidates in domestic elections. However, the force of Moon Jae-in propelled candidates from the President’s liberal Minjoo (Democratic Party of Korea) to epoch-making levels of political dominance in the June 13 local elections. Timing also played a part in what was the perfect storm for opposition parties.

Elections were held the day after the Singapore Summit. A politically charged electorate went from transfixed by Trump-Kim handshakes to turning out to polling stations at a rate of 60.2 per cent, the highest since the first local elections in 1995.

At nearly 80 per cent, Moon’s approval rates are unprecedented, and it has brought a similarly unprecedented crisis down on the traditionally dominant conservative Liberty Korea Party, as well as the recently formed centre-right Bareun Mirae, with the leaders of both parties resigning in the aftermath.

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Local elections encompass the district, city, and regional level with the national spotlight on the 17 major mayoral and gubernatorial races. Minjoo emerged victorious in 14 of the 17. Other than the conservative heartland of North Gyeongsang province and Daegu city, as well as the island province of Jeju, the Minjoo wave swept all before it. Minjoo also won 11 of 12 by-elections, moving to 130 seats in the 300-member national assembly, compared to LKP’s 113. With minor leftist parties occupying a further 25-seat block, Minjoo effectively has a legislative majority.

Minjoo’s spoils include the whole of the capital region, Seoul, Gyeonggi, and Incheon, which accounts for half the population of the country. In Seoul, Park Won-soon faced little resistance in securing a third consecutive term, winning 24 of the capital’s 25 districts. In Gyeonggi province, which encircles Seoul, Lee Jae-myung claimed the first liberal victory since 1998, defeating the conservative incumbent by more than 20 per cent. A string of personal scandals did little to slow down the twin forces of party momentum and a reputation for innovative welfare policy that Lee had on his side. The city of Incheon also changed hands from Liberty Korea to Minjoo, completing the latter’s clean sweep in the capital region.

In the liberal stronghold of the south-western Honam region – comprising Gwangju, South and North Jeolla Provinces – there was no pretense of electoral competition as Minjoo won every race with voter shares at least 70 per cent of the total. The ‘swing’ provinces of Chungcheong and Gangwon and their cities all also went blue too.

Having guaranteed success in the rest of the country, all eyes were focused on what would unfold in the traditionally conservative Yeongnam region. Yeongnam is, in political terms, the other half of Korea: the Busan-Ulsan-metro region, along with Daegu and the surrounding Gyeongsang provinces, disproportionately benefited from development projects through the post-war South Korean economic boom due to patron-client vested interests.

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This entrenched regionalism meant that liberals winning even a single race would be cause for celebration. Minjoo took the governorship of South Gyeongsang province with the emergence of rising star Kim Kyung-soo, and every city in the region except Daegu.

It is not yet clear if this is the death knell for regional conservatism or whether a more credible conservative party can one day reclaim their territorial base.

Such comprehensive political victories cannot be explained by a single phenomenon, but the most immediate of factors was clearly Moon’s North Korea peace process. By taking an initial hard line and then switching tack when heightened tensions between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea threatened the security of South Korea, Moon won the political capital necessary to pursue diplomacy with Pyongyang.

In doing so he rendered the conservatives’ most reliable weapon ineffective: a Cold War-style answer to the North Korea problem. Having seen much of their credibility on the economy seep away through the years of disgraced President Park Geun-hye, losing the debate on security meant both pillars of Korean conservatism had vanished.

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However, it is in the demise of impeached former President Park where the roots of the current conservative failing lie. The Park administration’s lack of transparency, corruption and indifference to public opinion meant the conservatives needed a clean break to have any hope of rebuilding public trust.

Instead, the last 18 months have seen half-hearted denouncements of Park administration actions, party splits, crossings of the parliamentary floor, and Hong Joon-pyo at the head of the Liberty Korea Party, a man who has displayed none of the flexibility and humility which the political landscape demanded.

The election was arguably even more disastrous for the fledgling Bareun Mirae party, hastily formed as an awkward marriage of politicians whose previous party alignments were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The party’s struggle to find a political identity meant that their first electoral test ended in disaster. Yoo Seung-min’s resignation as party leader and Ahn Cheol-soo’s embarrassing third-place finish in Seoul leaves the party’s continued existence in doubt.

Conservatives will likely be on the fringes of the political conversation for the foreseeable future. For Conservative Korea, this should be used as an opportunity for a long-term rebuilding project under fresh leadership – something which should have happened a long time ago.

For Moon, the local elections have granted him access to the political instruments necessary to implement his foreign and domestic agendas barely a year into his single five-year term.

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