Despite expectations that Wednesday’s legislative elections in South Korea would increase the majority of the leading Saenuri party, the party suffered a shocking defeat. Not only did it lose its majority, but it also narrowly lost its title as the largest party in the National Assembly to the Minjoo party. The result of the election is a major blow to South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, who is a member of the center-right Saenuri party and has come under criticism in recent years.
South Korea is, in many ways, a miracle. Today, it is one of the richest countries in the world. But when Korea was divided following the Second World War, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Then came the Korean War, which wreaked havoc on the country. The war caused an estimated 2.5 million casualties and destroyed Korea’s already underdeveloped infrastructure. Yet the country has been transformed since then. While North Korea continues to battle famine, South Korea has become the world’s 11th largest economy, has become one of the most technologically advanced countries on Earth, and has developed enormous cultural influence overseas. The road to such enormous success, however, has not always been an easy one.
For decades, South Korea was run by autocratic dictators. While its economy developed miraculously, the progress came at the expense of democracy. It was not until the establishment of the 6th Republic in 1987 that the country’s citizens were finally granted the freedoms associated with a democratic system of government. Despite the success of today’s political system, the ghosts of the dictatorial past continue to haunt South Korean politics to this day. Park Chung-hee, for example, is a politician whose legacy certainly shapes South Korea today. He is still loved by many due to his instrumental role in South Korea’s economic development, but he is also despised by many others for his iron-fisted disregard for democratic principles. Park Chung-hee also happens to be the father of the current president, Park Geun-hye.
As a member of Saenuri, Ms. Park has come under criticism by much of the left. She is accused of taking after her father and weakening South Korea’s democracy. Before she was even elected, a scandal occurred in which it was discovered that Korea’s National Intelligence Service posted over a million messages online in support of Ms. Park during the 2012 presidential election. The government was also criticized after forcibly dissolving a far-left political party after its members were found guilty of sympathizing with North Korea. Finally, last year, thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in protest of a law that required all history textbooks to be approved by the right-wing government.
With so much controversy surrounding Ms. Park’s government, it may come as a surprise that Saenuri was expected to triumph in Wednesday’s election. Yet the opposition was considered too divided to unite against Saenuri. The center-left Minjoo party, which is the party that won the most seats in the National Assembly, recently underwent a split. Before December of last year, it was known as the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). But it was divided when a faction of the party formed the People’s Party at the beginning of this year. The People’s Party is less left-wing than Minjoo and was formed partially due to its leader’s disdain of a system in which two parties dominate the National Assembly.
The split between Minjoo and the People’s Party explains why many analysts predicted that Saenuri would increase its majority. They assumed that the People’s Party would draw voters away from Minjoo, making both weaker. In a way, that did happen. While Minjoo is now the largest party in the National Assembly, it leads Saenuri by only one seat. Neither holds a majority thanks to the People’s Party. Yet it is clear that the controversies surrounding Saenuri have weakened the party to the point where it could not even stand up to an onslaught from a fractured opposition. Propelled by young and urban voters, the balance of power has clearly shifted from the right to the center-left. As a result, it is unlikely that Ms. Park will be able to succeed in passing any significant initiatives during her last two years as president.
The results Wednesday’s election certainly came as a surprise to many. To the older generation that remains nostalgic of the growth under Park Chung-hee, they were a disappointment. To the younger generation that has grown tired of Park Geun-hye’s right-wing policies, they were a delight. To a People’s Party that was tired of two-party dominance, they were a success. With no party holding a majority, the People’s Party will likely be able to swing quite a few votes. That means that those votes will likely be much further to the left than they were before, but it also means that Minjoo’s place in this National Assembly will be weaker than Saenuri’s in the last.