Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

9 May 2017

As liberal Moon Jae-in grabs the South Korean presidency, Kyle Pope examines the politics that got him into pole position.

In South Korea, the failure of Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party to hold onto floating voters he had initially attracted illustrates the difficulty of keeping together a fragile alliance of ideologically diverse supporters. The sharp drop in Ahn support in Honam and Yeongnam regions has seen a return of voters to their respective traditional parties: Minjoo (centre-left), and Liberty Korea (centre-right). An Ahn victory would mean an unprecedented break with deeply entrenched regionalism, but a partial revival for the conservative ruling party, Liberty Korea, has made this an impossibility. Rather than challenging for the presidency, Ahn is neck-and-neck with Liberty Korea’s Hong Joon-pyo in a race for a distant second. For the presidency, it is no longer a question of who, but rather by how much, as an expected record turnout has Minjoo nominee, Moon Jae-in, as overwhelming favourite.

In contrast to the tumultuous events of the past six months, the electoral map is likely to follow a pattern familiar to South Korean politics. The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and resulting drop in support for the ruling conservative party meant that any election was always going to favour the major opposition party. Moon Jae-in has been the favourite throughout the campaign, despite not polling above 50 percent at any point. The presidential election looks set to end in a Moon victory, with Liberty Korea nominee Hong Joon-pyo in second place. A late upswing for Hong from the traditional conservative stronghold of the Yeongnam region and those aged over 60, sees him set to overtake Ahn. People Party candidate, Ahn, threatened to disrupt established patterns of regional and ideological alignment, but his campaign has suffered a serious loss of momentum in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

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While the March 2017 Supreme Court decision to uphold former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment triggered an election to be held on 9 May, unofficial campaigning has been underway since 10 December last year, when the congress vote followed popular opinion and the impeachment motion was successful. The early withdrawals of Ban Ki-moon and Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn left the conservatives without an obvious choice for candidate. Instead, attention for the likely source of the next president turned to within the opposition Minjoo party. The opposition’s open primary saw Moon challenged by a brief surge in conservative support for centrist party-rival, Ahn Hee-jeong. However, as has been the pattern of this election, Moon held steady, saw support for his rival cool off, and eventually claimed the Minjoo candidacy by a comfortable margin.

On the conservative side, divisions in the ruling Liberty Korea Party (formerly Saenuri) resulted in an anti-Park faction breaking off to form the Bareun Party. Both the Liberty Korea primary and the Bareun primary failed to produce a candidate with a realistic chance of maintaining the right’s grip on the presidency. As party primaries came to an end in late March, Ahn’s centrist People’s Party held the strongest challenge to Moon. Ahn enjoyed a spike in support, putting him within the margin of error in his pursuit of Moon.

While polls indicated that a straight run-off against Moon would favour Ahn, a more fragmented election would result in a Moon victory in Korea’s single-round, first-past-the-post electoral system. It was, therefore, imperative that Ahn’s momentum overwhelm both Hong Joon-pyo from the ruling Liberty Korea Party and Yoo Seung-min from the splinter conservative Bareun in order to occupy the political centre and right and turn the election into a true two-horse race. Drawing his existing support from the liberal stronghold of South Jeolla province, Ahn was positioned to bring in votes from conservative-leaning voters with his harder line on security and relations with the North. His challenge was to secure votes across regional and generational divides. For a while, Ahn held together a fragile coalition, drawing support from both sides of Korea’s regional east-west political divide.

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In relative terms, the biggest winner of the campaign has been the far-left Justice Party’s Shim Sang-jung. Outperforming expectations, she rose from relative obscurity to polling at around 8 per cent in the last polls before voting. The only female candidate among the 15 on the ballot, her campaign has focused on labour issues. Strong debate performances, coupled with rallies targeting university campuses and a savvy social media campaign, have given her a foothold among the youth vote. However, there is little scope for growth. As the debates end so does her chance to gain more votes through greater exposure. For Moon, Shim Sang-jung’s rise will certainly cost him votes but he has been able to counterbalance with the regaining of votes from Honam voters who have abandoned Ahn.

For Ahn, awkward and unconvincing throughout the debates, April brought an end to his chances of becoming the next president of the Republic of Korea. The required coalition between Ahn and the two conservative candidates never materialised. Rather than making further inroads into Moon’s centrist support and the traditional conservative voting bloc, Ahn’s numbers steadily dropped. His campaign promises leveraged his background as a relative outsider, originally from the IT field. Ahn focused his campaign on preparing Korea’s job sector for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, education reform, and support for SMEs.

Frontrunner Moon adopted a cautious and steady approach to the campaign, which might not win him many new voters but allowed him to hold his lead. Anything close to the 48 per cent he garnered in his losing run in the 2012 presidential two-way race against Park would be more than enough this time around. The message behind Moon’s campaign was that of creating a respectable nation in line with the wishes of the anti-Park candlelight protests. Moon also focused on the electoral cornerstones of job creation, promising to create 810,000 new jobs, and tackling the chaebol’s stranglehold on the Korean economy. Aided by the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to the Korean peninsula, Moon’s willingness to engage with Pyongyang, and critical view of US deployment of an anti-missile defence system to South Korea, has not stopped him from being clear favourite as the nation goes to the polls.

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In stark contrast to Moon, Hong Joon-pyo’s abrasive style and rally-the-base talking points has seen a late resurgence in the dormant support from the conservative base of the Yeongnam region. Avoiding university campuses, Hong has rallied intensively in traditionally conservative areas. In addition to visiting the memorial for the late dictator, father of the impeached Park, Hong has also made sympathetic comments about the imprisoned president herself. The self-styled “strongman” portrays himself as the candidate for the common man, pledging to reduce cigarette and petrol prices. His main strategy has that of being strong on security, in addition to being pro-corporations, and friendly to the United States.

Yoo Seung-min’s anti-Park conservative faction, more liberal than Hong on social issues, has ultimately been rejected as low support resulted in the re-defection of 13 Bareun legislators back to Liberty Korea. While Yoo fared better than Hong in the debate performances and fact-checking evaluations, it was the latter who won the battle between the two conservative candidates. In contrast to Yoo’s nearly scandal-free campaign, a multitude of controversies including comments about women’s role in the home, assisting in attempted date-rape in his student days, and linking AIDS with homosexuality have not impeded Hong’s rise.

Ahn’s attempt to appeal to those disillusioned with the established two-party dynamic has ultimately failed to prove more attractive than more conventional ideological campaigning of Hong, and to a lesser extent, Moon. While it is the conservatives’ turn to deal with political fracturing, regionalism look set to remain. If regionalism is to be overcome one day, it will have to be someone other than Ahn Cheol-soo who achieves it. A return to liberal rule under a Moon presidency, after two conservative terms, is more status quo than revolution.

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