Weak Parties Are No Problem for South Korean Partisans

By and | April 10, 2024 | No Comments

How do voters choose their representatives in under-institutionalized party systems, where party organizations lack stability and deep societal roots? Traditional theories suggest that voter preferences gravitate towards individual candidate characteristics over party-based or ideological affiliations in systems where parties are weakly institutionalized. Such systems tend to be dominated by personalities and regional networks, with parties frequently acting more as platforms for prominent figures than as institutions with distinct identities and programmatic linkages to the electorate.

South Korea is one such case.

Figures such as Ahn Cheol-soo and Cho Kuk are high-profile examples of personalism in the party system. They exemplify how individual candidates’ personal appeal, reputation, and perceived integrity or expertise can play a decisive role in electoral politics, particularly when party identities are fluid and party loyalty among the electorate is seen as relatively weak.

Ahn’s appeal was not rooted in traditional party politics but in his image as a successful, reform-minded outsider who could bring a fresh perspective to governance. His candidacy for the Seoul mayoral election and subsequent runs for the presidency capitalized on his personal brand as a technocrat and a new kind of politician untainted by existing party affiliations. There was an attempt, denied by the National Election Commission, to start a party named after himself (‘Ahn Cheol-soo’s New Party’).

Cho Kuk provides a somewhat contrasting but similar recent example of personalism in South Korean politics, with controversies significantly impacting political outcomes. Initially celebrated as a progressive academic and a key advisor to President Moon Jae-in, Cho’s nomination and brief tenure as Minister of Justice were marred by allegations concerning his family’s unethical conduct, particularly regarding his daughter’s university admissions. These controversies sparked massive public outcry and protests, demonstrating how personal issues can eclipse party affiliations in shaping public opinion. His return to politics, not under any party banner, but as the leader of his own political party underscores the broader point. 1)The party name is 조국혁신당, which can be translated as ‘Fatherland Innovation Party,’ although it is branded in English as ‘Rebuilding Korea Party’. The party name, as used in Korean, is certainly deliberate. The word for ‘fatherland’ is the same as the party leader’s name. Cho presents an issue-focused campaign centered on reforming the Public Prosecutor’s Office, but his party otherwise has no true programmatic base and will likely only last as long as he does.

Weak Parties, Strong Partisans

Our new working paper2)Ward, Peter and Steven Denney, “Partisan Voters with Weak Parties: Evidence from South Korea,” Working Paper, April 8, 2024. challenges the assumption in the party systems literature and even those taken from examples in South Korean politics, like those cited above. We find that while extensive research exists on party institutionalization and voter behavior, there remains a disconnect between understanding the influence of party power and the reasons behind voter choices in these less structured political systems.

In the lead-up to the 2024 Korean General Election, we fielded a survey experiment with 2,006 South Korean respondents that asked them to evaluate pairs of candidates in mock election scenarios. Respondents were shown profiles of hypothetical candidates for either general or presidential elections, with these profiles varying across ten attributes with pre-determined levels. Each respondent evaluated ten pairs of candidates, choosing the one they most preferred in each pair.

The attributes were designed to cover a range of factors that might influence voter decision-making, including personal characteristics understood as important to the South Korean electorate and salient policy positions for which left/right differences can reasonably be expected. The policy positions were crafted to be realistic for candidates, concentrating on those that align with the ideological orientations and policy positions, both domestic and foreign, associated with the two major parties in South Korea: the conservative People’s Power Party and the progressive Minjoo Party.

Our research finds that personal characteristics do indeed matter, but notably, there is also a significant alignment between voters and political parties along expected left/right ideological lines. That we find evidence of such voter-party alignment, despite South Korea’s weakly institutionalized party system, is notable. This suggests that, regardless of the underdeveloped nature of party structures, partisan voters maintain their ideological affiliations, demonstrating clear preferences that reflect partisan divides.

The paper explores the findings in more detail, but we look at some takeaways below. Given the election, which just took place, we only explore findings specific to general election preferences among progressive and conservative partisans. The paper does not focus on the general/presidential election differences.

First, we look at select personal characteristics that tell a story: gender, career background, and scandal accusations.3)A ‘scandal’ variable is often used to measure the importance of personalism within an electorate. The figure below shows the probability that a candidate’s profile was chosen given the attribute level for partisans and then the difference between the two groups. We see that conservatives prefer male over female candidates and, in fact, are less likely to choose a candidate simply because they are female.

Careers matter, too, and this is where we see the clearest evidence of personalism. A politician with a prosecutor background is considerably less likely to be chosen by a progressive, certainly due to the strong association of this profession with the current presidential incumbent, conservative Yoon Suk-yeol. However, a politician with a civil rights activist background is strongly preferred by progressives and notably opposed by conservatives. In South Korea, a civil rights activist background is likely to resonate deeply with progressive voters, largely because it echoes the legacies of former Presidents Moon Jae-in and Roh Moo-hyun, both of whom were human rights lawyers and symbolize the fight for democracy in the country’s authoritarian past.

We also find that scandal allegations significantly influence voter preferences, impacting both conservative and progressive voters in South Korea. However, the effect is more pronounced among progressives. For instance, candidates with ancestors accused of pro-Japanese activities during the colonial period are particularly disfavored by progressives, reflecting historical sensitivities and the emphasis on national identity and pride within progressive circles. Bribery allegations and issues related to military service also factor into voter preferences, potentially damaging candidate support, which aligns with the high value placed on integrity and public service within South Korean society. These findings highlight the political cost of scandals and the importance of a candidate’s background in electoral politics.

South Korea’s Mock Election: Analysis of Selected Personal Characteristics

Next, we look at policy preferences. Here, we see evidence of left/right cleavages among voters in South Korea. For housing policy, we find that progressives endorse positions consistent with expectations. Notably, they favor candidates who wish to expand public housing and oppose those who wish to cut real estate taxes, whereas conservatives oppose candidates who wish to increase real estate taxes.

However, one notable finding from this research is that foreign policy trumps all policy positions in magnitude. While housing policy matters, in the design run for this survey, a candidate’s position on foreign policy matters. Notably, the findings presented here are for general election candidates, where it is often assumed that foreign policy matters less or not at all. Our data does not support this position.

The findings show a marked preference among conservatives for candidates who emphasize the US-South Korea alliance. Notably, progressives oppose this prioritization in the country’s foreign policy. This contrasts with conservative voters who are more skeptical of engagement with North Korea, possibly viewing it as a risk to national security or as potentially undermining the strength of the alliance with the United States.

While candidates for office running in general elections are far less likely to emphasize foreign policy positions, the geopolitical implications of the election outcomes are significant. Even general elections serve as a referendum on foreign policies pursued, and new assembly majorities can have serious implications for ruling parties and their presidents. For the 2024 general election, this could mean a possible progressive legislative supermajority, which would likely make the Yoon administration’s foreign policy goals considerably harder to achieve.

South Korea’s Mock Election: Analysis of Selected Policy Positions

To conclude the review, we note our findings concerning social policy, which focused on preferences regarding an anti-discrimination law, something which South Korea notably lacks. Conservatives oppose candidates who endorse a rapid implementation of an anti-discrimination law, possibly due to concerns about the implications for social harmony or traditional values. Progressives, conversely, favor a consensus-seeking position and are disinclined from supporting candidates who oppose the law.

While we note in the full paper, which uses the data on presidential election preferences as well, that progressives seem willing to support a fast-tracked anti-discrimination bill, it is notable that for general election candidates – at the time of a general election – such a position does not garner much support. While presidents have agenda-setting power, social policy items such as these are far more meaningful for legislative candidates than foreign policy. Yet, the latter holds more away over voice choice.

Correction notice: “This contrasts with conservative voters who are more skeptical of such engagement […]” in the original post has been corrected to, “This contrasts with conservative voters who are more skeptical of engagement with North Korea […]”.


1 The party name is 조국혁신당, which can be translated as ‘Fatherland Innovation Party,’ although it is branded in English as ‘Rebuilding Korea Party’. The party name, as used in Korean, is certainly deliberate. The word for ‘fatherland’ is the same as the party leader’s name.
2 Ward, Peter and Steven Denney, “Partisan Voters with Weak Parties: Evidence from South Korea,” Working Paper, April 8, 2024.
3 A ‘scandal’ variable is often used to measure the importance of personalism within an electorate.

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