By Juni Kim
The fallout from President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment has dramatically altered the state of conservative politics in South Korea. Despite two successive conservative presidencies and holding majority control of the South Korean National Assembly over most of the past decade, conservative politicians are now dealing with two fractured parties and no clear presidential contender to rally around. Leaders had hoped former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn would enter the race and help unite the conservative vote, but both Ban and Hwang ultimately decided against running for office.
With the South Korean presidential election less than a month away, conservative Korean voters face an unclear voting dilemma. Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party (formerly known as the Saenuri or New Frontier Party) and Yoo Seung-min of the breakaway Bareun Party have polled in the single digits in recent weeks with no clear signs of gaining traction. With an increasingly tightening presidential race between frontrunners Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, how the conservative vote tips could be the deciding factor in the May 9th election.
The fractured state of the conservative parties has not appeared to dampen election enthusiasm among conservative voters. According to a Gallup Korea poll conducted last week, 94% of self-identified conservatives indicated they will or will likely vote in the upcoming election, which is also true of general Koreans polled. The actual participation rate is likely to be lower based on data from prior elections, but the intended participation for the upcoming election is similar to rates before the 2012 election, which had 75.8% participation of registered voters.
Among conservatives, no single candidate holds a majority of the vote, though a majority of conservatives prefer either liberal candidate Moon Jae-in or centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo. Both Hong Joon-pyo (22%) and Yoo Seung-min (5%) also lag behind the support for Ahn Cheol-soo (42%), who holds the largest share of conservative support. Although both conservative candidates expectedly polled better among conservatives, Ahn likewise experienced a bump in support compared to the overall poll numbers.
Similarly, Ahn Cheol-soo currently holds a much higher 65% favorability rating over both conservative candidates, though Hong Joon-pyo and Yoo Seung-min hold higher favorability ratings than their progressive counterparts Moon Jae-in and Sim Sang-jung.
Conservative voting confidence has clearly been shaken by the fallout of President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. The Liberty Korea Party (then the Saenuri Party) went from being South Korea’s most supported party a year ago to polling in the single digits in last week’s Gallup Korea poll. Although Hong Joon-pyo has called for the Bareun Party to “come home” and create a unified conservative party with the Liberty Korea Party, the poll numbers suggest that even a party merger may fail to bring together the vote. The damage may be too recent for the candidates to overcome the prevailing political winds even in the unlikely scenario that a unified party is created.
The more significant question is if Ahn Cheol-soo can successfully court enough conservative voters to swing the election in his favor. Despite starting his political career among liberal circles, Ahn has campaigned as a centrist candidate, and his differences in security policy compared to Moon Jae-in may broaden his appeal among conservatives. With continuing North Korean provocations, security issues including the debate over THAAD deployment are likely to remain a prominent election topic in the weeks ahead, and one that conservative voters will pay close attention to.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Graphics created by Juni Kim. Photo from travel oriented’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.