By Troy Stangarone
After three months of deliberations, the Constitutional Court has unanimously accepted the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Since the scandal surrounding President Park and her confidant Choi Soon-sil first broke last fall, South Korea has gone through an extended political crisis. Protesters have gone to the streets in record numbers and the fallout from the scandal has led to the arrest of President Park’s former Chief of Staff, the head of the National Pension service, and Samsung Vice President Lee Jae-yong among others. With the Constitutional Court having decided to accept the removal of President Park from office, what comes next?
A Snap Election and a Compressed Transition
With President Park removed from office, Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn will select a date to elect a successor. The election must be held within 60 days of the Constitutional Court’s decision. With the ruling having taken place on March 10, the current expectation is that the presidential election will be set for May 9. Acting President Hwang does have some discretion in selecting the date. With two holiday’s in Korea during the prior week, scheduling an election day earlier than May 9 may be complicated.
If regularly scheduled elections are unpredictable (see U.S., 2016 and UK, Brexit), snap elections are inherently more unpredictable. While the compressed timetable gives Moon Jae-in, the leading candidate in polls, an advantage, the dynamics in a short campaign could change quickly and provide few opportunities for a candidate to rebound should there be a sudden shift.
The new president will take over as soon as their victory has been certified by election officials and serve a full five year term. While prior incoming administrations had a transition period between a December election date and inauguration day on February 25, the new administration will have no transition period. Additionally, the inauguration date for presidents going forward, will move to the next president’s inauguration date, should there be no constitutional reforms to set a fixed date.
Compressed Political Primaries
With elections approaching, each party will need to select their candidate. In a normal election, the political parties would have sufficient time to implement a primary process. While the political parties control their primary process, we have already seen indications of how the process will be shortened. The Minjoo Party conducts a two round primary, unless on candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in the first round. As part of the primary, they hold a voting tour similar to the U.S. primary system where votes are staggered across different regions. In light of the compressed campaign calendar, the voting tour will be reduced to four areas for the upcoming election.
While Korean election law requires presidential elections take place over 23 days, there will be an incentive for the parties to select nominees as soon as possible to begin the process of unifying the party behind their standard bearer and putting in place a plan to win the upcoming election.
Game Changing Events
In the United States, every campaign heads into the final stretch of the election concerned that there could be an “October surprise.” The idea of the October surprise is that there is some unforeseen event that fundamentally reshapes the election in a way that the campaigns cannot control. Each campaign will need to prepare for such a game changing event, especially in what could be a fluid election race. In a short campaign cycle, even normally less significant events could alter the race if a candidate does not handle their response to changing events well.
Should Moon Jae-in secure the nomination of the Minjoo Party nomination, he will be the odds on favorite to win. He currently leads all of the political contenders in the polls at 36.4 percent and narrowly lost to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election. During that election, the failure to quickly develop an alliance between Moon and the other main opposition candidate at the time, Ahn Cheol-soo, may have cost him the election. There have already been suggestions that other candidates may try to form an alliance to preclude Moon from winning the presidency. With South Korea now having four major parties, in the absence of an alliance, there is also a greater chance those opposed to Moon Jae-in would likely divide the opposition vote. This will be another factor to watch as the election proceeds.
Can Conservatives Smooth Their Divisions
During the impeachment debate, conservatives in South Korea split over whether to support President Park or to vote against the impeachment. Tensions between President Park’s strong supporters and other party members, however, predated the impeachment process. Ultimately, significant numbers of the then Saenuri Party (recently renamed the Liberty Korea Party) voted for the president’s impeachment and many of those who voted for the impeachment left to form the new Bareun Party. One of the story lines to follow will be whether conservatives are able to heal their rifts and put together a united ticket or whether divisions remain.
Will Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn Resign and Seek the Presidency?
Currently, the strongest contender for president from the conservative side is Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn. After Ban Ki-moon withdrew his candidacy, many of his supporters shifted their support to Acting President Hwang, who has risen to nearly 15 percent in one of the most recent polls. However, should Acting President Hwang decide to seek his own term as president, he would need to resign from his current role as Acting President and Prime Minister. If he does intend to run, he will most likely resign sometime shortly after setting the new date for the election so as to be eligible to run in the Liberty Korea Party’s presidential primary. Should he do so, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Strategy and Finance Yoo Il-ho would become acting president.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Fredrick Rubensson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.