While it was South Korea’s ruling Saenuri party that lost last week’s parliamentary elections, they were especially damaging to President Park Geun-hye. The results not only cripple the president’s ability to govern, but they are a stunning repudiation of her tenure in office. South Korea looks set for political gridlock and some are even asking if Park is a lame duck, with a little less than two years to go in her five-year term.
Elected in 2012, Park has had three tumultuous years in office. The economy has slowed, her policies have been inconsistent and her reforms have been blocked by a recalcitrant parliament. Much of the blame has been heaped on Park, who is widely viewed as aloof, isolated, and inconsistent, and parts of her government are thought to be quick to manipulate the public for electoral results — such as reports before the April 13 vote of high-level North Korean defections, presumably to encourage South Koreans to back the ruling party.
Saenuri had 152 seats in the 300-seat assembly. The party was anticipated to maintain that majority, but it sustained stunning losses, dropping to 122 seats. It was overtaken by the Minjoo Party of Korea, which claimed 123 seats and is now the largest party in the National Assembly.
The eclipse of the ruling party is a headache for the president, but that problem has been compounded by the strong showing of the People’s Party, a group formed and headed by Ahn Cheol-soo after he left Minjoo late last year. The People’s Party is now the No. 3 force in the legislature with 38 seats. Add the 6 seats won by the Justice Party, and liberal and centrist opposition parties now command a majority in the assembly, the first time in 16 years that liberal lawmakers outnumber conservatives in the legislature and the first time in modern South Korean history that the party of the incumbent president is not the largest force in the assembly.
The election results will have profound consequences for Park and could shape the fight to elect her successor next year. The first and most immediate problem for the president is that her economic program will encounter even stronger resistance. The South Korean economy is slowing. The International Monetary Fund forecasts 2.7 percent growth for the country in 2016, a half percentage point below the global average and well below the growth rates that South Koreans became accustomed to during the boom years of industrialization. Youth unemployment is rising and economic prospects have darkened as the South Korean economy matures and is buffeted by the global slowdown.
Park pledged when she was elected to transform the economy to a more secure footing to deal with 21st century realities, but that effort has been fitful. Transitions are difficult, especially when there are no ready or easy models to follow, as Japan knows well.
Central to the problems that South Korea is facing is a growing concentration of wealth: A recent IMF study showed that the top 10 percent of workers in South Korea claimed almost half the total income in the country, the highest level in Asia. As a center-left party, Minjoo has tapped growing anxiety about growing inequality, pushing for ways to strengthen the social safety net. Its opposition to Park’s agenda, which embraces more conventional neoliberal measures such as labor market reform, is expected to stiffen after this ballot.
Defense and security policy will not see much change. The key issue there is North Korean belligerence. There is no indication that a softer line from Seoul would impact Pyongyang’s thinking, and increasing numbers of South Koreans acknowledge as much. Continuing provocations, such as the failed missile test last Thursday, more nuclear tests , and other moves will ensure that Park’s increasingly hard line enjoys broad support.
Park’s weakness could, however, impact the agreement signed last December with Japan that is supposed to close the book on the “comfort women” problem. South Korean anger at the deal has not subsided, and the Park administration is reluctant to spend political capital on the agreement. Thus, it will be incumbent upon Japan and the Abe administration to ensure that there is no reason for South Koreans to rip up the deal — they will be looking for an excuse. We cannot give them one.
Finally, the election results could provide insight into the next presidential race. Ahn came in third in the 2012 campaign, but last week’s ballot shows he is by no means a spent force in Korean politics. The largest question is whether United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former foreign minister, will throw his hat in the ring and for which party. While he served under a progressive president, he has enjoyed backing from Park and conservatives and Saenuri’s loss suggests there is no obvious frontrunner from within the party for the presidential nomination.
The largest uncertainty is how Park will respond to defeat. She could insist that the failings were that of the party, and do not reflect on her presidency. Given the need for legislative support for her programs, that is a dangerous position to take. If she is to pass her agenda, she needs public support to press the case in the assembly. That requires the president to do much more to win public trust and support to overcome the opposition that will follow last week’s vote.
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