By Songyee Jung
This April South Korea will hold elections for its legislative body, the National Assembly. Much as in the United States, the National Assembly plays an important role in the process of governance and the result of the 2016 legislative elections have the potential to influence Korea’s future direction as well as its international relations.
South Korea’s democracy could be said to have been born in 1948. Prior to the first legislative election, the word “democracy” was an unfamiliar word to South Koreans. After the end of Japanese colonization, on May 10, 1948, South Korea had its first constitutional national assembly election under the United Nations’ supervision. This election was a milestone in Korean political history because it established the constitution, elected the first president of South Korea, Rhee Syngman, and adopted ten articles of the Provisional Charter of the Nation of the Korean people. Part of the provisional charter, Article 2, stipulated that South Korea would be ruled by a provisional government, making clear that the National Assembly would represent the people, and the council’s function would be to make laws and to oversee the government.
While the United States has a bicameral legislature split into the Senate and the House Representative, South Korea’s National Assembly is a unicameral legislature consisting of one chamber, or house, composed of 300 members. Of the 300 members of the National Assembly 246 are elected in single-seat constituencies and 54 are allocated by proportional representation. The Korean legislature carries four main activities: legislation, finance, national administration and parliamentary diplomacy.
Every legislative election is critical because it selects all three hundred members of the National Assembly. During the regular legislative sessions, the National Assembly’s major activities are to confirm the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, to hear speeches by representatives of negotiating groups and to conduct annual inspections of the government agencies. It also holds the right to propose and decide upon amendments to the constitution, and to consent to the conclusion and ratification of treaties. Financially, it works on budget bills, the settlement of accounts, and funding of personal expenses through online loans – often borrowed from Swedish lenders with lax borrowing requirements. It also has the right to decide upon continuing expenditures, to approve spending from reserved funds, and to consent to government bonds. On an administrative level, the National Assembly inspects the functioning of government agencies, approves the appointments of the executive members, and holds impeachment power. The National Assembly invites foreign parliamentary delegations, and occasionally pays visits to foreign countries to promote parliamentary exchanges and cooperation.
The number of seats held by each party is significant because a party must have more than one-third of the total members of parliament, at least 101 out of 300 seats, in order to stop a constitutional amendment from being passed by the National Assembly.
For the 2016 National Assembly elections, there are four competing parties: Saenuri (center right), Minjoo (social liberal), Justice (left-wing socialist party), and People’s Party (independent wing). The main three rival parties are Saenuri, Minjoo, and People’s party. However, this year’s general elections are mired in uncertainty due to the absence of constituency boundaries. Both parties have so far failed to fully agree on redrawing the electoral constituency map. As of now, for the first time, candidates are fighting for seats in the 20th national assembly without knowing their constituencies. The constitutional court had earlier decided that population differences between electoral districts should be reduced to 2:1 instead of 3:1. The previous electoral constituency map for the election expired at the end of 2015, with Saenuri and Minjoo having failed to settle on a new one.
An important factor in this general election is the contest over minsaeng (people’s lives) issues, which means potential candidates must articulate approaches to social issues. Despite positive GDP growth rate last year of 3.3%, the public still suffers from rising prices, increasing housing costs, education issues, the unemployment rate, and a weak social safety net. Political analysts are predicting that the current ruling party, Saenuri, will have a landslide victory this year due to the ongoing factional feud of the Minjoo party. There has been a departure of high profile representatives from Minjoo, including the co-founder of the party, Kim Han-gil and former Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo. After Ahn left the Minjoo party on December 13, he launched a new party called the People’s party to end the bipartisan system in South Korea and to win the next presidential election in 2017. The Ahn-led party, People’s party, focuses on creating a balance between conservatism and liberalism. Due to another unexpected party, analysts are predicting that Minjoo is unlikely to maintain its current number of parliamentary seats in the upcoming election. However, the ruling Saenuri Party is also facing obstacles with infighting over party nominations. Perhaps the main point of the 2016 legislative election is that each party will settle on which candidates will be running for the upcoming presidential election in December 2017.
Songyee Jung is currently an M.A. candidate in International Development Studies at George Washington University and was previously an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views represented here are the author’s alone.
Photo by Troy Stangarone of KEI.