The Road to the Blue House: #Shigak no. 26

By | April 02, 2017 | No Comments

The Blue House, executive office and official residence of the South Korean head of state. Today it lies empty, but the public will soon select a new president. | Image: Wikicommons

Between February 2014 and October 2015, Sino-NK ran a regular series of analyses of South Korean politics and society through the lens of the Korean-language media. “Shigak” (시각), or “perspective” used Twitter to curate sources on the key affairs of the day. Each issue took the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the #시각 hashtag and augmented them with essential annotations and a bite-size dollop of concentrated analysis.

Things have changed a lot since 2015. Former President Park Geun-hye has been swept from office and faces criminal prosecution, as does the de facto head of Samsung Group, Lee Jae-yong. The country will soon go back to the polls, a full seven months early. All of this, plus the awe-inspiring series of public protests in late 2016 that got us here, has resulted in intense focus on South Korean politics.

In response, Sino-NK has revived #Shigak, and will publish brand new #Shigak analyses three times a week between now and the election. #Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Yongmin Lee is a regular contributor. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page. Importantly, users of Twitter are encouraged to adopt the hashtag and take part in the project.

The Road to the Blue House: #Shigak no. 26

by Sino-NK

This issue of #Shigak engages for the first time with the presidential election, which will take place on May 9.

The future is never easy to predict, but now it is particularly tricky. One need not be disillusioned with opinion polling per se to see that asking the public about the winner of the South Korean election at this point in the campaign is not reliable. Primary season isn’t over, and polling with a list of eight candidates, three of whom are still contesting the Minjoo Party primary, is not realistic. It will take at least another week for the fog to clear.

In this edition of #Shigak, we look in detail at the first order of business on the road to getting that clarity: the candidates. In the last week, we learned who will contest the election for the two conservative parties. The likely winners of the main progressive party primaries also swam into focus. Much of the attention was on the Honam region, the traditional bedrock of regional — and regionalist — progressive support. We were also put on notice to expect an even higher turnout than normal.

Arguably the decisive variable in the election is Ahn Cheol-soo. Ahn is firmly in the People’s Party driving seat after winning all five party primaries up to and including the one held in Suwon on Saturday. As it stands, he is also the closest competitor to Moon Jae-in in nationwide polling. But most of the polls don’t put Ahn that close to Moon; he comes in a distant second. For instance, a Dong-A Ilbo poll conducted by Research & Research and published on the 29th gave Moon just over 30% of the vote, with Ahn back on 15.3%.

Yet it is very hard to know what will happen once the chaff has been stripped away and only the wheat remains. Broadly speaking, Ahn’s People’s Party platform puts the party in the center-left of the political spectrum, some way to the right of Moon on important issues like national security. If nobody on the right seems plausible to voters come May 9, and assuming that Moon does beat his closest Minjoo Party challenger, Ahn Hee-jung, the race could tighten considerably. Ahn is a long shot, but it is at least plausible that he could be competitive, particularly if conservative voters conclude that voting for Ahn is the only way to stop Moon. A proportion of conservative voters are convinced Moon will sell out South Korea’s hard-won national security in a vainglorious attempt to engage North Korea, and will do what they can to stop him.

In the last week, the Minjoo and People’s parties both held a string of primary elections around the country to choose their respective presidential candidates. The former is the largest party in the South Korean legislature and the latter its competitor on the left (and its main competitor overall due to the implosion of the right). On March 25 and 27, the two were in the Honam region in the southwest.

Moon Jae-in’s landslide victory in the Minjoo Party’s Honam primary seems to confirm the popular perception that his nomination is all but a foregone conclusion. This has taken the air out of his rivals’ campaigns, and Moon now has a two-digit lead over the rest. For Moon, a convincing lead over his primary opponents is an important (but not the only) step towards unifying the fractious Minjoo Party.

Meanwhile, Moon’s chief rival, Ahn Cheol-soo won his party’s Honam primary with a whopping 70% of the vote, a comfortable win that cements him as the party’s presidential candidate. Since the region represents a significant voting bloc for both parties in the traditional progressive stronghold, how Honam voters vote on May 9 is crucial for Moon and Ahn alike.

There is seemingly no doubt that the turnout on May 9 will be high even by South Korea’s impressive modern standards. Polls released throughout the last week have looked at this question, and repeatedly they have reached the conclusion that more — frequently quite a lot more — than 80% of respondents intend to vote.

The top tweet above is from a survey conducted on March 26. It polled a nationwide sample of 1009 people across a cornucopia of pending issues relating to the election. Where voting intention is concerned, 84.2% of respondents indicated that they will definitely vote, and a further 8.7% put themselves in the probable voter category. In a Donga Ilbo poll on March 29, 81.3% of 1000 respondents said definitely, and a further 12.1% said that if circumstances allowed, they would vote. The second tweet above shows a similar trend toward high turnout reported in a Munwha Ilbo poll earlier in the week.

If the nation acts in accordance with the survey result in the top tweet, the turnout could be as high as 92.9%. If the election proceeds per the Donga Ilbo poll, turnout could reach 93.4%. There is every likelihood that the nation will do neither of these things, of course, but turnout is nevertheless set to beat the 75.8% recorded at the last presidential poll in 2012, and probably also top the 80.65% that went to the polls when Kim Dae-jung was elected in December 1997.

On March 28, lawmaker Yoo Seung-min won the Bareun Party presidential primary race, beating Gyeonggi Province Governor Nam Kyung-pil. The Bareun Party is largely made up of the anti-Park Geun-hye faction of what was the Saenuri Party, which splintered in acrimony around the time of Park’s impeachment.

Since Yoo’s nationwide presidential support is just 3%, his victory in the primary may seem insignificant. However, were he to merge back with the Liberal Korea Party candidate, Hong Joon-pyo, to leave a unified conservative presidential candidate on the ballot on May 9, he could prevent a split vote among right-leaning citizens. Moreover, there may be the possibility of creating an alliance with Ahn Cheol-soo and the People’s Party, which may be welcome news to a People’s Party that is trying to grow beyond Honam and prove that it can last more than one election cycle. So far, Yoo has rejected both scenarios, stating that he is not planning to combine his presidential campaign with anyone.