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The Peninsula

The Death of Regionalism in Korean Politics?

Published May 13, 2016
Category: South Korea

By Thomas Lee

The 1987 presidential election marked the first free national election in Korea since Park Chung-hee’s coup d’état in 1961. This election saw three contentious candidates: Noh Tae-woo, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Young-sam. Due to a dispute between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, the unified opposition ticket collapsed and they ran against each other, splitting the opposition vote, and enabling Noh to win the election.

This political episode is seen by many to be one of the intensifying factors of South Korean regionalism in which provinces tend to vote for favorite sons. As Kim Young-sam was from Gyeongsang Province and Kim Dae-jung was from Jeolla Province, they carried the southeast and southwest respectively. Three years later, Kim Young-sam unexpectedly merged his party with the ruing party to create the Grand National Party (GNP). This strengthened a trend in which the southwest mainly voted for opposition parties while the southeast voted for the party in power. The memory of the Gwangju Massacre further entrenched this trend as no one from the southwest would vote for the GNP, which was seen as the remnants of the previous military dictatorships. Park Geun-hye’s Saenuri Party, the most recent incarnation of the GNP, has won one seat in Jeolla Province since the 1990s.

Candidates have been trying to break South Korean regional politics for years. In the 2014 race, opposition parties reasoned that even if they lost local elections in cities such as Busan and Daegu, traditional strongholds of the ruling party, if they managed to pull 40% of the vote, it would be seen as a political victory. Representatives Lee Jung-hyun of the ruling Saenuri party and Kim Boo-Kyum of the opposition Minjoo party were two of the current challengers who attempted to secure seats in their districts of South Jeolla Province and Daegu to challenge this deep-rooted nationalism. Regaining support from Busan in particular has been important to opposition parties as it was the historic seat of Kim Young-sam.

Over the past few decades, this deep-rooted regionalism has been channeled by politicians and parties alike who have manipulated popular sentiment in their favor by parachuting candidates in who hail from that particular area. This recent national election has been particularly significant as the electorate in both liberal and conservative strongholds cast their ballots for candidates running across the regional divide, providing for many unforeseen upsets. It shows that the electorate may no longer blindly follow party lines but rather start actively voting for candidates who favor their own interests.

Factionalism, rebellion, and defections were prevalent in both major parties during the run-up to the recent National Assembly election. Park’s Saenuri Party in particular was deeply divided into pro-Park and anti-Park factions, while the Minjoo Party suffered from the defection of Ahn Cheol-soo and his circle. As history demonstrated many times before, the conservative ruling party was expected to benefit from this liberal split. However, the ruling party instead lost its majority in the National Assembly, the first instance to happen with a sitting president in power. Even more surprising is the success of Ahn Cheol-soo’s fledging People’s Party, which won 38 seats to create a multi-party legislature.

This does not mean that regionalism is dead. Looking closely at the data and election maps, we can still see the heavy effect of regionalism on South Korean voting behaviors. The peculiar election result that we have seen is due in part to three factors: demographic shift, population shift, and economic discontent.

The South Korean voting populace is split between three sections: the elderly (60-70+), the middle-aged (45+), and the young. The elderly are the ones who vote for the ruling party in droves while the middle-aged, who were raised under the dictatorship and witnessed the transition, are split down the middle. As demographics continue to shift, in the short-term, the Saenuri Party will lose their core constituency and the battle to win over these middle-aged voters will become even more fierce in the coming years. Aside from that, with voter turnout increased to 58% this election, bolstered by hordes of young voters, this election clearly shows the declining influence of the Saenuri Party at the polls. Dubbed the ‘Three-No Generation’ – no job, no housing, no marriage prospects, these young voters effectively passed judgement on policies that have not produced stronger economic growth and provided them with greater economic prospects.

Voters tend to become more conservative as they age, so the Saenuri Party may only face a medium-term demographic challenge. Due to this, the Saenuri Party could recoup and even expand their power base as the population ages. While public opinion data showed an increase among young Koreans who have decided to cast their ballot along with heightened voter turnout, this trend will become overshadowed by Korea’s rapid aging. In thirty years, the elderly will make up 40% of South Korea’s population.

A population shift has also not been in the Saenuri Party’s favor. With all of the top ranked colleges in Korea, with the exception of POSTECH and KAIST, in the Seoul-metro area, more people have been moving to the capital. Now over half of the South Korean population lives in Seoul and the larger Gyeonggi Province. These migrants have brought their regional allegiances with them into the capital, but as more Koreans grow up in the Seoul metropolitan area, regional preferences will disappear.

A handful of candidates overcame traditional boundaries to secure surprise victories, but the Saenuri Party suffered many losses in its traditional strongholds of Daegu, Busan, and Ulsan cities, South Gyeongsang Province, and the Gangnam and Bundang areas of the capital. Myongji University Professor Shin Yul determined that instead of the demise of regionalism playing a large role, the residents of Gangnam chose the liberal candidate in accordance to their economic interests. With regional allegiances clashing in Seoul and citizens beginning to discard traditional voting behaviors, it will be harder for any one party to stake a claim to Seoul from here on out. In the future, politicians and parties will no longer be able to effectively secure seats based on geographical location, but will have to appeal to the wants and desires of the people.

Perhaps this is why President Park has been held under higher public scrutiny. What we see here is not regionalism in its death throes, nor was it genuine support of the opposition, but discontent towards the ruling party and government.

How then to explain the success of Ahn’s People’s Party? With the Minjoo party spending much of its time and energy to win over the capital and the southeast, we can see regionalism in play as it lost most of the Jeolla Provinces to Ahn’s People’s party as the voters there felt taken for granted, yet were still unwilling to vote for the ruling party. There was also hope as Ahn Chul-soo has come to symbolize widespread disillusionment with the two major parties as well as with equality and justice. As both major parties have been brushing aside voters in favor of factional feuds and political agendas, nowhere was this more felt than in the Jeolla Province, home of the opposition. But with the People’s Party’s new floor leader floating the idea of being willing to form a coalition government with the conservative Saenuri Party, the party’s approval rating dropped from 50% to 38% in favor of the Minjoo Party.  This shows that regionalism is not dead, although it is declining.

Thomas Lee is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of American University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Keith Cuddeback’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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