In the elections held on April 13, 2016 all the 300 seats of the Seoul National Assembly were renewed.
253 members of Parliament were elected with the typical British first-past-the-post system, the traditional mechanism by which the candidate winning 50% of votes + 1 or, alternatively, the candidate obtaining the majority of votes in a particular constituency, regardless of the percentage of his/her valid votes, is elected.
47 representatives were elected from proportional party lists, in accordance with Constitutional provisions.
Against all odds, the elections were clearly won by the Minjoo Party of Korea.
The Minjoo Party, formally the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, is a political grouping of liberal-democratic culture, at least according to Western political science criteria.
It was created on March 26, 2014, as a merger of the Democratic Party with the preparatory committee of the New Political Vision Party. In fact, the old Democratic Party was fully absorbed in the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, while the preparatory committee was dissolved and has no relevant members in the new grouping.
The losing party is the liberal-conservative Saenuri Party, defeated by one single seat in the Assembly and in votes for party lists, while the Minjoo Party came third, in terms of total votes, behind the Saenuri Party in first place and the new centrist People’s Party in second.
The Saenuri Party, also known as the New Frontier Party, has a center-right political tradition and, until February 2012, it was known as the Grand National Party.
It was created in 2012 as a merger of the United Democratic Party and the New Korea Party. In fact, its earliest ancestor was the Democratic Republican Party under the authoritarian-Gaullist rule of Park Chung-Hee. In 1980, upon Park’s death, it was renamed Democratic Justice Party, under the rule of an equally authoritative leader, Chun Doo-Hwan. In 1993 it was officially called Democratic Liberal Party.
In 2002, this political group was reconstituted again and the already-created Saenur Party merged with the Advancement Unification Party.
Hence these elections mark a radical change of the South Korean institutional scene, with a hung Parliament which is no longer able to provide sound majorities, but is open to government bargaining.
A dangerous practice which comes after the South Korean Constitutional Court authoritatively dissolving the Progressive Party, a leftist grouping largely characterized by a Marxist-Leninist culture.
In 2012 the Saenur Party had won 152 seats out of the 300 available.
Nevertheless the candidate of this group, Ms. Park Geun-Hye, had won the presidential election despite the Saenur Party had recorded a decrease of its seats to 146 out of 292, exactly 50% of the Assembly votes.
Undoubtedly those elections had been affected by the decision of the Constitutional Court which, while noting that the electoral districts had led to an asymmetry of representation, reduced the size of most constituencies.
After 2013, when the Progressive Party was dissolved by decree, due to its alleged ties with North Korea, the decision of the Supreme Court led the Justice Party to be the only leftist organization on the South Korean political scene.
The Justice Party was later supported officially by the powerful union of trade unions, but its members were close to the left wing of the Minjoo Party in terms of programs and policies, while one of its leaders, Ahn Cheol Soo, walked out of the party and founded the new People’s Party in early 2016.
By constitutional law, the next presidential elections scheduled for 2017 are off limits for the current President Park Geun-Hye.
Let us see the possible candidates.
Firstly, there is Moon Jae-In, who had been defeated by the current President, who in mid-February was elected as leader of the main old opposition party, the aforementioned New Politics Alliance for Democracy.
His allies include the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, who, at least according to the polls, is currently the most popular presidential candidate.
Moon can rely on the Left votes of the South-Western province of Jeolla but, however, he is also capable of winning over the conservative votes in the city of Busan, currently ruled by the Saenur Party.
Also the leader of the Saenur Party, Kim Moo-Sung, comes from Busan. He is an old acquaintance of the National Assembly since he was elected five times.
However, which are the real themes of the South Korean electoral campaign and policy?
First and foremost, there is the maintenance and transformation of the Welfare State.
The old government has always supported the line of “maintaining and expanding welfare without raising taxes”, especially corporate income ones.
However, specific taxes on tobacco and cars were introduced last September, with a further restructuring of the income tax which, in effect, increases the tax revenue.
Therefore the idea that South Korean voters had of the government is that it raised taxes for the middle class and workers without expanding the Welfare State, which is currently weak.
Conversely Moon wants to raise corporate income taxes, especially on the chaebol, the business conglomerates which have always characterized the South Korean production system.
In fact the New Politics Alliance for Democracy focuses on the “Welfare State”, with Moon who wants free meals for all South Korean pupils and argues with the South Korean chaebol which, in his opinion, now epitomize a backward development model.
The Saenur Party has no clear position on these issues.
But the Party knows all too well that currently, in South Korea, the welfare cannot be expanded without raising taxes and, above all, without forcing the chaebol (such as Samsung) to pay higher taxes.
This could lead many businessmen to leave the country and set up factories in Vietnam or, even, in the North Korean Free Economic Zones, which have never taken off.
The latest polls show that South Koreans do not want a bigger Welfare State, but 52.8% of them want to directly increase the corporate tax, regardless of this new tax revenue being used for welfare purposes.
The problem lies in the fact that currently the South Korean economy and incomes are very polarized between the haves and the haves not, while the network of small and medium sized enterprises has not yet become the key to the new national economy.
In foreign policy, the Saenur Party is clearly conservative and has no intention of adhering to new negotiations, or even softening its position vis-à-vis North Korea’s actions.
On the contrary, President Park wanted a Summit with North Korea without preconditions, i.e. without Kim Jong Il giving up his “new militarist” line.
Paradoxically, but not too much, the South Korean conservatives have always been those having a more open-minded attitude towards their North Korean “brothers”, while the South Korean center-right leadership has always aimed at having a preferential relationship with China at economic, political and cultural levels.
Moon, however, is heir to the legacy of former President Roh Moo-Hyun, who has always advocated a compromise with the North Korean “brothers” at all costs.
China, however, does not like the correlation of forces between South Korea and the United States.
Hence we are witnessing a radical transformation of the South Korean political scene: for the first time in 16 years, the President’s party has lost the elections.
As we have already partially noted, this is due to the “hard line” against North Korea and the neo-liberal and free trade economic policy which for the Western political parties and alike is a one-way ticket in elections.
The Saenur Party won 122 seats out of 300 and, inter alia, many candidates have abandoned it during the campaign because they did not feel protected and safeguarded at organizational and electoral level.
As we have already seen, the Minjoo Party won 123 seats and, according to its leaders, the success of the opposition party results from South Korean slow growth.
Last year the GDP growth rate was a meager 2.6%, with youth unemployment which, last February, reached the “European” level of 12.5%.
The People’s Party won 36 seats, probably thanks to the positive effects of the mass demonstrations against the new particularly pro-business labour legislation which had been supported by President Park.
The Minjoo Party wants above all to create more jobs; it plans to increase the minimum wages and pensions and build affordable housing for young people.
As we have already noted, it is very likely for the issue of North Korea and its relations with South Korea to be the priority.
In terms of national security, the vast majority of South Koreans support President Park’s line, much in line with the US one, which would impose the immediate end of North Korea’s nuclear program and the end of its missile launches.
Nevertheless, all the opposition parties, including the center-right ones, emphasize the gap existing between President Park’s pro-American line and the pursuit of South Korean national interest, which coincides with an easing of tensions with North Korea.
However, while China does not want to undermine its relations with South Korea, certainly it cannot sever all its ties with North Korea, although it should be noted that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has not yet found the time to visit the North Korean “comrades”.
This adds to the internal situation prevailing in South Korea: first and foremost, the division and the infra-electoral controversy between the two democratic progressive parties, which has favored the conservative-liberal party, although not to the extent it was assumed.
Secondly there is an explosive youth issue, that a South Korean sociologist summed up with the “three no” slogan: no work, no house and no marriage.
During the 2008 crisis, which severely hit also the fourth Asian economy, the old parties’ choice was to maintain and protect the traditional system of chaebol, the Korean version of the Soviet kombinat, without preparing the structural reforms which were immediately needed.
As we have already noted, 12.5% of young people are unemployed, but the South Korean average unemployment rate is 4.9%.
Young voters blame the Saenur Party: only 17% of young people under 30 show a preference for this party.
Hence the “Korean dream” has been shuttered, namely the 1960s idea that, by working hard, everybody would anyway have a good job and a good income.
Obviously, today this is no longer the case in South Korea. And politics reflects this with its main feature in these cases, namely uncertainty.
Giancarlo Elia Valori * (@GEliaValori)
* Presidente della merchant bank “La centrale Finanziaria Generale S.p.A.”
– Presidente della “Cattedra sugli studi della pace, la sicurezza e lo sviluppo internazionale presso la Facoltà di relazioni internazionali della Peking University, nonché “professore straordinario” di economia e politica internazionale nello stesso Ateneo
– Honorable dell’Académie des Sciences dell’Institut de France