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The Peninsula

Regionalism: Fading Shadow or Unyielding Ghost?

Published May 26, 2020
Category: South Korea

By Ingyeong Park

Are Korean citizens still voting based on their region’s long-standing affiliation with the conservative or liberal party? This is a perennial question in South Korea after every election, and the latest general election on April 15 was no different. Even though President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic Party clinched a landslide victory, traditionally progressive Honam region (North and South Jeolla Provinces) and traditionally conservative Yeongnam region (North and South Gyeongsang Provinces) appeared unwilling to shift their political allegiances. However, a closer look at the data suggests that these voting patterns may not be a hard-set rule in the years ahead.

Political regionalism is a prominent feature in modern Korean political history. During the 7th presidential election in 1971, Park Chung-hee from the conservative party focused his campaign on the Yeongnam Region while his progressive rival Kim Dae-jung concentrated his efforts in the Honam region. In the end, Park Chung-hee won 65.62% of the votes in South Gyeongsang province and 73.35% in North Gyeongsang. Similarly, Kim Dae-jung won the majority of the votes in the Jeolla Provinces.

This pattern of voting remained a prominent electoral dynamic even after democratization in 1987. According to research by Ajou University Professor Moon Woojin, although the effects of regionalism did soften in the 1996 and 2000 legislative elections, its impact on elections has not diminished in the intervening years.

Some reports covering the 2020 National Assembly elections suggested that regionalism had deepened. Candidates from the conservative United Future Party won in 56 constituencies out of 65 open seats in the Yeongnam region, while progressive candidates from the Democratic Party won 27 out of 28 districts in the Honam region. In fact, the Democratic Party secured fewer seats in the Yeongnam region compared to the previous general election.

However, outcomes from individual district races may not present the full picture. Despite conservative party candidates winning most of the seats in the Yeongnam region, the number of votes gained by the Democratic Party in the region has increased compared to the last general election. In the 2016 legislative election, only  8 of the 18 candidates from the Democratic Party in the city of Busan (sitting in the heart of South Gyeongsang Province) won more than 40% of the votes. In the most recent contest, 16 candidates from the progressive camp won more than 40% of the votes in the city.

According to the newspaper Hankyoreh, the increased share of the votes that the Democratic Party received in the Yeongnam region is reflected in the number of proportional seats gained compared to the last general election. The outlet also mentioned that evidence of persistent regionalism may be an optical illusion created by the first-past-the-post voting system.

The bigger concern for the future of the electoral system is whether the newly implemented mixed-member proportional representation (PR) system would be able to elevate the representation of minority parties as it was intended. So far, the two major parties have proven capable of cannibalizing votes intended for smaller parties by creating satellite parties. This will likely become a growing issue in future elections.

Ingyeong Park is currently an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. She is a student of political science and diplomacy at Ajou University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from the user Republic of Korea on Flickr 

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