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South Korea’s Presidential Election: Formula for Victory

by Scott A. Snyder
December 17, 2012

South Korea's presidential candidates Park of the ruling Saenuri Party shakes hands with Moon of the Democratic United Party before a final televised debate for the eighteenth presidential election in Seoul. (Pool/courtesy Reuters) South Korea's presidential candidates Park of the ruling Saenuri Party shakes hands with Moon of the Democratic United Party before a final televised debate for the eighteenth presidential election in Seoul. (Pool/courtesy Reuters)

South Korea’s presidential campaign formally launched on November 26 with seven registered candidates. The main candidates are ruling Saenuri party representative Park Geun-hye and progressive opposition Democratic Unity Party (DUP) representative Moon Jae-in. The election is likely to turn on the following factors: a unified support base, demography, and turnout. Here are some factors to watch as South Korea’s campaign reaches its climax with a national vote to be held on December 19.

Unifying the base: Since South Korea has been roughly evenly divided between conservatives and progressives in recent elections, a prerequisite for campaign success is a unified constituency behind a single candidate. Past South Korean elections have clearly taught that a divided base or third party candidacy will tip the balance in South Korea’s closely divided electorate. This year, conservatives united early while progressives have waited to the last minute to back a unified candidate.

Following two months of suspense over who would be the main opposition progressive candidate to center-right candidate Park (selected last August amidst token opposition), IT entrepreneur, scholar, and independent candidate Ahn Chulsoo conceded to DUP candidate Moon Jae-in, a lawyer who served as former president Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff. Ahn’s concession made Moon the major candidate opposing Park, who has quietly moved to unite conservative support for her candidacy.

This tumultuous prelude to the campaign highlights a major issue facing progressives: whether or not they can heal, unite, and mobilize behind Moon’s candidacy in the space of only three weeks. For this reason, Moon needs Ahn Chulsoo supporters if he is to have a chance of beating Park. Initial polls following Ahn’s abrupt November 24 withdrawal from the race that only fifty-five percent of those polled indicated that they would definitely support Moon, but since Ahn rejoined the campaign trail in active support of Moon in early December, the race has been getting tighter. If Moon wins, he will owe a debt to Ahn.

Maximizing the demographic advantage: The 2012 American electoral outcome was a reminder that a demographic edge can be decisive. Translated into a Korean context, the picture can be quite complex. Historically, regionalism has been defined as all-important, but Park’s stronghold is southeastern Kyongsang province while Moon hails from the largest southeastern city, Busan. This means that Moon has an opportunity to eat into Park’s southeastern support base, while Park’s challenge is to perform more competitively in the Seoul-Gyeonggi region near the national capitol where DUP supporters are in the majority. The DUP carried aggregate vote numbers decisively in the Seoul-Gyeonggi region in the April National Assembly elections.

There is also a clear generational divide among the South Korean electorate, with Park winning decisively among the over-50 generation and Moon winning decisively among the under-40 generation. This makes the generation in their 40s, which also represents the largest generational cohort, a decisive constituency. This group experienced the political euphoria of South Korea’s transition to democracy from authoritarianism in the 1980s, but is now consumed with financial responsibilities as breadwinners and family budget managers that make them yearn for economic stability and growth.

Finally, Asan Institute polling reveals an 8-10 point gender gap between Ms. Park and Mr. Moon that could be decisive if Moon cannot find ways of compensating. This is interesting because Park will make history if she wins as South Korea’s first woman candidate, and if she does, she will owe her victory to women voters even though she owes her political career as much to her father’s political legacy as a former president as to the fact that she has beaten conservative, male party standard-bearers at their own game.

Mobilizing voters: Given the generational divide within South Korea’s electorate, a decisive factor in determining the electoral outcome will be turnout. Put simply, older voters vote, but younger voters may not. A report by South Korea’s National Election Commission shows the impact of voter turnout in the 2002 and 2007 presidential elections. Although the percentage of voters over age 50 was close to seventy percent in both elections, under 40 voter turnout in the 2007 election languished well under sixty percent in 2007 when Lee Myung-bak won, compared to an over 60 percent turnout in 2002, the year that Roh Moo-hyun won. This means that Ahn’s support for the progressive ticket is essential since his support base came primarily from the younger generation until he dropped out of the race in late November. A youth voter surge, mobilized by South Korea’s vaunted social media prowess, will be essential to a Moon victory. Many observers say that this may be one of the closest presidential elections in South Korean history.

For more resources on the U.S.-ROK alliance, please see the following recently released books: The U.S.-South Korea Alliance and Global Korea: South Korea’s Contributions to International Security.

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