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The Peninsula

What is Next for South Korea’s Ruling Democratic Party?

Published May 28, 2020
Category: South Korea

By Soo Jin Hwang

The 21st session of the National Assembly is set to begin on May 30. As the Democratic Party of Korea (DP) members will constitute the supermajority of the legislature, President Moon and the ruling DP will enjoy significant flexibility in pursuing more ambitious political agendas that were previously blocked by the opposition. To deliver promises to its constituents, the DP’s foremost objective in the opening week of the new National Assembly will be to control the chair positions of vital legislative committees. However, the ruling party will also face challenges as its unprecedented control threatens to upset some parliamentary traditions and the DP would be solely accountable for any policy mistakes.

Election Results 

The ruling DP won a historic majority in the 21st South Korean general election held on April 15, 2020. With its satellite party, the DP secured 180 out of 300 seats in the National Assembly. Three-fifths control of the legislature endows the party with the power to do almost anything except constitutional revision, which requires at least 200 votes. Notably, the DP can disregard the 2012 National Assembly Advancement Act, which was introduced to stop any one party from ramming through laws without any compromises with the opposition parties.

This is the first time that a single party has won over 60 percent of the seats in a legislative election since democratization in 1987. The conservatives claimed the previous biggest win with 153 seats in the 2008 election, followed by the liberal party’s 152-seat victory in 2004.

Although three members will not be taking their seats in the process of the DP’s merger with its satellite party, 177 members in the National Assembly is still an unparalleled position. Moreover, given the ruling DP’s close relationship with other minor parties, the ruling party is likely to have a little difficulty in reaching three-fifths consent. For instance, members of the Open Democratic Party, a minor liberal party which won 3 seats in this election, are supporters of President Moon. The other two minor parties, the People’s Party and the Justice Party, are also politically on the liberal spectrum and hold 6 and 3 seats respectively.

National Assembly Advancement Act

Before the National Assembly Advancement Act was introduced, the Speaker of the National Assembly had the authority to define how much time a parliamentary committee had to examine a bill. If the committee failed to meet the timeline without justifiable reason, the Speaker could submit the bill directly to the floor. The Speaker is usually elected from the party with most seats. Hence, the party with the majority often abused the rule to bypass the opposition, prompting the opposition to take drastic measures like physical violence.

To limit one party from trampling over the opposition with a simple majority, the government passed the National Assembly Advancement Act, which required bills to have at least three-fifths support from the National Assembly to be “fast-tracked” and brought to the floor for a vote. In addition, the Act allowed lawmakers to filibuster with support from at least one-third of the chamber. votes to provide an alternative to violence for the opposing side. The revision also allowed three-fifths of the legislature to forcefully stop any filibuster.

Now that the ruling party is likely to control three-fifths of the votes, the checks established in the National Assembly Advancement Act are at risk of becoming irrelevant, leaving the main opposition party without any formal means to block the ruling party’s unilateral passage of laws.

Immediate Goal: Distribution of Standing Committee Members

An immediate concern for the DP is securing as many as possible chairperson positions of the Standing Committee for the 21st Assembly. Among the committees, the Legislation and Judiciary Committee (LJC) is getting the most attention due to its authority to examine legislative bills. The position has been assigned to a member of the opposition party since the 17th Assembly. However, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DP) is attempting to reduce the power of the LJC or take the chairperson position of the LJC, capitalizing on its unprecedented landslide victory on April 15.

The LJC is vital because it has the authority to reexamine the bill that has already been approved by a committee. For the main opposition party, the LJC is one of the few remaining tools to maneuver against the ruling party’s one-sided passage of bills. While the opposition United Future Party (UFP) is arguing that it is a tradition for the LJC chairperson position to be assigned to the main opposition party, the ruling DP is asserting that the job was given to the ruling party until the 16th National Assembly.

The chairperson of each Standing Committee of the National Assembly is chosen by the members of the committee. Members are appointed to these committees by the Speaker in proportion to the number of seats their party control and at the request of each party. As it currently stands, the ruling DP can secure the chair positions in 11 to 12 of the total 18 Standing Committees. Observers anticipate the ruling DP to also take the chair position of the LJC since it has a supermajority in the Assembly.

Even if the DP wants to share these positions with the opposition parties, it is difficult for the DP leadership to give up committee chair positions because of demands from individual party members. In addition to the LJC, chair of the Strategy and Finance Committee, the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, and the Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Committee are popular positions among lawmakers.

Long-Term Implications and Challenges for the DP

The long-term objective for the DP would be winning the next presidential election. With control of the 21st National Assembly, alongside President Moon’s soaring approval ratings, the prospect of the ruling party winning the next election seems promising. However, the upcoming presidential election will be held in 2022, and it is uncertain whether the ruling DP and President Moon will be able to maintain the strong public support they are currently receiving until then.

The greatest challenge for the President and the ruling party would be the post-COVID-19 economic revival. DP’s victory in the general election was a reflection of the public’s approval of Moon administration’s effective management of the pandemic. However, the government’s failure to handle the looming economic challenges could easily undermine public support. The fact that the ruling DP and President Moon have complete control of the government further increases the risk of whiplash because they will not be able to blame opposition parties.

Furthermore, despite the dramatic election outcome, the support for the ruling DP might be more fragile than it appears. Some experts explain that the election results were more about the opposition’s failure than the DP’s success. Also, the gap of votes each party received is much smaller than it seems based on the number of seats they secured. The DP received 49.91 percent of the total votes while the UFP got 41.45 percent. It shows that there is still a large support base for the opposition.

The DP and President Moon have two options. Either they can use the given leverage to the full extent and pursue ambitious policies that were previously hampered by the opposition, or they can try to aim for more modest policy goals to reduce their exposure to blame for potential policy failures.

Soo Jin Hwang is currently an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. She holds a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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