Conservatives eked out a surprising victory in National Assembly elections in South Korea last week. Capitalizing on voter anger at President Lee Myung Bak and a general anxiety over economic prospects, progressives were expected to prevail in the ballot. The outcome is a likely harbinger of continuity in South Korean politics and policy. That should be good for Japan.
As recently as a month ago, polls and pundits predicted a progressive victory in the election. South Koreans felt that Mr. Lee’s policies were good for the country’s large companies, but not for ordinary citizens. His hard line toward North Korea had not produced payoffs — at least insofar as Pyongyang remained belligerent as ever — and a series of personal and political scandals had further tarnished his image and credibility.
Two developments upset expectations. The first was a scandal in the main opposition party, the Democratic United Party, in which a candidate was nominated despite a series of highly offensive remarks. The second was the ability of Mrs. Park Geun Hye, leader of the conservative New Frontier Party, to distance herself and her party from Mr. Lee and his government. This involved rebranding the party itself and steady criticism of the president. This is not so difficult in the personalized politics of South Korea; ideological inclinations can be overwhelmed by other factors.
As a result, the conservatives retained control of the National Assembly for another four years, claiming 152 seats in the 300-seat legislature. The victory has two important implications. First, the ongoing conservative majority suggests broad continuity in South Korean policy and no escalation in battles between the Blue House and the legislature. Second, while a great deal can happen between now and then, Mrs. Park is now the favorite in the presidential election to be held in December.
Continuity in Seoul is good for Japan. While problems have periodically roiled relations between the two countries, things could have been much worse. Mr. Lee should be commended for not exploiting the perennial hot button of his country’s relations with Japan. Japan should seize this opportunity to do more to stabilize its relationship with Seoul and encourage Mr. Lee’s successors to follow his path.