By Troy Stangarone
Voting in the shadow of North Korea’s missile launch and a prospective third nuclear test, South Korean voters went to the polls on April 11 in an election that some 60 percent described as a referendum on the administration of President Lee Myung-bak. Despite perceptions that there was widespread dissatisfaction in South Korea with the current administration, results indicate that South Koreans came away from the polls undecided about their nation’s future but giving a slim majority to the conservative New Frontier Party (NFP).
With almost all of the votes counted, the NFP had secured a small majority in the 300 seat National Assembly with at least 152 seats. Turnout was estimated at nearly 55 percent, which means that the results go somewhat against the grain of prior Korean elections as turnout near the 55 percent mark has historically favored liberals. However, the NFP’s slim majority means that Korea may avoid the gridlock that seemed likely when early polls indicated that neither of the major parties would secure an outright majority in the National Assembly. Though, that could change with defections and bi-elections in the years ahead, but for the moment the NFP’s slim majority means stability in the legislative branch.
The NFP’s victory also means we are unlikely to see any major foreign policy shifts in the near future. President Lee will remain in office for the rest of the year and he will now have support within the National Assembly to maintain his policies. The Democratic United Party (DUP) tried to make revision of the KORUS FTA a major point of its campaign, but the issue never seemed to gain traction as the DUP might have hoped. While the agreement may still remain a campaign issue, the DUP will likely shift its emphasis away from the FTA as it tries to build a winning coalition for the presidential election in December.
While the DUP may press for a softer policy towards North Korea, it seems unlikely to change in the near future as well. With even Russia calling North Korea’s satellite launch a violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and the prospect of a 3rd nuclear test in the near future, it seems unlikely that the Lee administration would change course in its final months despite pressure from the DUP.
One significant milestone from the elections related to North Korea is the likelihood that the first North Korean defector will be elected to the National Assembly. Cho Myong Chul, who is running as one of the proportional candidates for the NFP and seems likely to gain a seat based on the early results.
On the domestic front, less may divide the two parties than many realize. Both parties campaigned on platforms of strengthening Korea’s welfare state and implementing policies that would help small and medium sized businesses in the face of increasing competition from the Chaebols. This may provide opportunities for liberals and conservatives to work together in the National Assembly as the NFP will only have the smallest of margins with which to pass major legislation.
The big winner in the elections would seem to be Park Geun-hye. Runner up to Lee Myung-bak in the then Grand National Party’s (GNP) presidential primary five years ago, and presumptive nominee for the NFP this time, she is being credited with engineering the NFP’s turnaround. The election results should only enhance her chances in this fall’s presidential race.
However, in the long-run the National Assembly elections are only the first step in determining who will lead Korea. Much of the future foreign and trade policy will be shaped by the next occupant of the Blue House. While the quite support of Ahn Cheol-soo did not work as well for the DUP as it did during last fall’s Seoul mayoral election, there is one lesson for both parties from that campaign. Eight months in any political campaign is an eternity. After losing the mayor’s office in Seoul it seemed as though the then GNP was down and out. That didn’t happen and December is an eternity away.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute. His views are his own.
Photo from Chitra Chaaya’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.