#Shigak no. 6: The 6.4 Election Special

By | June 03, 2014 | No Comments

Election pamphlet front covers: Seoul mayor incumbent and NPAD politician Park Won-soon (L) and Saenuri challenger and Hyundai Heave Industry CEO, Chung Mong-joon (R) | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Seoul mayoral race election pamphlets: Saenuri candidate and Hyundai Heavy Industry CEO, Chung Mong-joon (L), and NPAD incumbent Park Won-soon (R). | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

“Shigak” (시각), or “perspective,” is a multilingual data collection effort that uses Twitter to curate sources dealing in key political, social, and economic issues on South Korea. Each bimonthly issue takes only the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the hashtag #시각 and augments them with essential annotations and a small dose of concentrated analysis.

Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page.

#Shigak no. 6: The 6.4 Election Special

by Sino-NK

This issue of Shigak is dedicated to the June 4 regional elections in South Korea. With high voter turnout expected, the opposition is hoping to score a number of victories against the ruling Saenuri Party, who appears to be on the defensive in the wake of the Sewol Ferry sinking and a number of other politically damming incidents. Aside from the “Sewol effect,” a number of systemic characteristics unique to South Korean democracy are certain to affect the election results. Both the temporary and enduring issues are analyzed here. Also, in addition to election-only analysis, the subjects of national identity and institutional change are given brief attention.

The following tweets were posted between May 16 and June 3.

JTBC’s pre-election breakdown shows the country split along an east-west regional divide, with Gwangju and Busan as possible exceptions (see analysis below). The western provinces of North and South Jeolla have shown consistent and overwhelming support for candidates from the mainstream progressive party, whereas the eastern provinces of North and South Gyeongsang have repeatedly supported conservative party candidates.

Regionalism in South Korean politics dates back to Korea’s early developmental years under Park Chung-hee, when the eastern provinces received preferential treatment. Many of the early architects of Korea’s economic development strategy, including Park Chung-hee, were originally from the region. Recently, some have claimed that regional voting behavior amongst South Korea’s younger cohorts is on the decline, but if the 2012 presidential election results and polling for the forthcoming regional election are accurate indicators of the state of things, regional voting patterns (and regionalism) are likely to persist.

Although analysis shows that the Sewol tragedy has effected the regional elections (in favor of opposition candidates), the Hankyoreh reports on a nationwide poll (see graphic) that shows Park’s approval rating still above 50 percent and the ruling party (Saenuri) with a plurality of support. Even with the ruling party on the defense, analysts find that in order for the opposition to win big in this election, they will need more support from voters in their 20s and at least a 10pp lead amongst the 40s cohort.

Arguably, the number one reason the opposition is incapable of taking full opportunity of the government’s mishandling of the Sewol incident and the current political shenanigans is that they are simply not organized enough. A constant problem for the progressive party in South Korea, the merger between the Democratic Party, lead by Kim Han-kil, with political outsider Ahn Cheol-soo has resulted in internal strife. This has ramifications for party support. Even Kwangju, a traditional stronghold for progressive candidates, is not fully behind Yoon Jang-hyun, the mayoral candidate selected by the NPAD. The left-leading independent candidate, Kang Woon-tae, could take the election.

On May 30, KBS was called out by PPSS [ㅍㅍㅅㅅ],  an internet magazine created in December 2012 by a member of editorial staff from a second internet publication, Slow News, for, as it were, “not knowing how Excel works.” In other words, KBS was accused of distorted graphics used to illustrate election races in some key locations, including, most prominently, the Seoul mayoral contest, but also the Sejong City contest and the race for governor of Gyeonggi Province. KBS later amended their erroneous and/or malicious mischaracterization of events, as shown at the header of the article here.

It is interesting to note some of the other structural imbalances that crop up repeatedly in the South Korean democratic process. Quite apart from headline grabbers such as corruption, incompetence, persistent out-of-parliament politics and the overweening power of the executive branch, there are also elements that go unreported, by and large, in English. KBS did an excellent report on one of these in its regular “Weekly Issues (취재파일)” slot on May 16, drawing attention to flaws in the opinion polling system.

Other than Gwangju, the mayoral election in Busan is a race to watch. A traditional stronghold for the conservative party, the progressive independent, Oh Keo-don, is neck-and-neck with the Saenuri candidate Suh Byung-soo.” A win there,” writes the Joongang, “would be a symbolic change a significant shift in the political landscape in the second year of Park Geun-hye’s presidency.”

Significantly, it appears that Oh was able to insert himself as a serious contender by choosing to run unaffiliated. Although it would be an overall victory for the opposition, it is certainly not helpful that the NPAD is not symbolically represented by a candidate for mayoral race in the country’s second largest city. Weak party institutionalization is seen by many as a barrier to full democratic consolidation in South Korea.

The Economist writes about the major influx of foreign brides in South Korea. “Last year over a fifth of South Korean farmers and fishermen who tied the knot did so with a foreigner.” Foreigner spouses are expected to surpass the 1.5 million by 2020. Despite the problems of assimilation in an ethnically homogenous society and the government’s new marriage rules, the influx of non-ethnic Koreans, combined with a general shift in basic values, is likely to precipitate significant social changes.

In fact, the Asan Institute’s Kim Jiyoon has found that national identity in South Korea has already begun a significant transformation. Her survey results show that ethnic-based identity is on the decline; South Koreans, especially those in their 20s, are increasingly identifying nationality (i.e., “Koreaness”) with civic characteristics, not blood. For those interested in post-industrial South Korea, this is an important issue to watch.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, contrary to what many believe and what Park Geun-hye said, the South Korean Cost Guard was not abolished, nor will it. Although nothing is certain at this point, the change “appears to be primarily organizational in order to integrate the country’s maritime-safety functions into one.” The gesture was likely a political move used to deflect criticism that the government was failing to handle the situation appropriately.

New institutionalists find “windows of opportunity” as those unique points in history when continuity is broken and the opportunity for making real and lasting changes arises. The Sewol Ferry tragedy, according to some, is South Korea’s chance to make sorely needed reforms in the fields of regulation and oversight; it is also an opportunity to clean up the so-called “Gwan-pia” (관피아): a noxious mix of bureaucracy and corrupt private business. It is too early to judge whether any serious changes were or are made.

With fourteen days of campaigning to go, the percentage of voters who declared themselves “certain” to vote in one poll was a massive 68.7 percent. This drive to vote is being seen in South Korea as just one of many reverberations from the sinking of the Sewol, which has energized the young South Korean left in particular.

For better or worse, much of this ire has been focused on the administration of President Park Geun-hye and the neoliberalism of her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, and not on Cheonghaejin Marine Co., the company that ran the ship with demonstrable incompetence and indifference to public safety. As a result, one general presumption is that the public is going to deliver President Park a stern rebuke via the ballot box on June 4.

Snipped from the main KBS nightly news show before unionized producers went out on strike, this image reaffirms the nature of regionalist sentiment in some parts of South Korea. In keeping with a venerable tradition, left wing candidate Song Ha-jin was always going to wipe the floor with his Saenuri Party competitor Park Cheol-gon for the post of North Jeolla Province governor, and with fourteen days of campaigning remaining found himself 47 points ahead in the polls.

Regionalism is not new to analysis of South Korea, of course, but it carries no small cost. There is scholarship dating back 30 years to indicate that under normal conditions, local governance is better when competition between candidates is more intense. That this is rarely the case in southwestern South Korea should perhaps be cause for concern.

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