FIRST LOOK: South Korea Presidential Election, 2017

The political situation

As the Constitutional Court continues to deliberate President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment charges and the Independent Counsel nears the end of its mandate, much attention has begun to shift towards the inevitable Presidential Election to succeed Park.

The President is the head of state, and is directly elected to a non-renewable five-year term. The President is also the leader of the executive branch, and holds the power to appoint the Prime Minister. It is therefore the highest seat in the land, exercising control over both domestic and foreign affairs. South Korea employs a single round, first-past-the-post electoral system to elect the President.

The election is currently scheduled to be held on or before 20 December 2017, with the elected candidate taking office on 25 February 2018. However, if the impeachment motion to oust President Park is approved by the Constitutional Court, the election will be held within 60 days. The court seems determined to rule by March 13, when acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi is set to complete her term.

If Park were to be formally impeached, a scramble to assemble viable political campaigns will ensue. As such, many potential candidates have already declared their political campaigns, whilst many others are not shy of making their ambitions known.

The parties

There are currently 5 political parties represented in the National Assembly, with 4 large enough to exceed the 20 seat requirement necessary to form floor negotiation groups (교섭단체). Floor negotiation groups are entitled to a number of rights denied to smaller parties, including more state funding and involvement in determining legislative agenda.

Much of South Korea’s political history involves parties splitting, party unification, and party renaming. For example, the major centre-left party, the ‘Minjoo Party of Korea’ was formerly called the ‘New Politics Alliance for Democracy’ (NPAD), which itself was formed from the merger of the ‘Democratic Party’ and the preparatory committee of the ‘New Political Vision Party’. Similarly, the ‘People’s Party’ was formed in 2016 by defectors from the NPAD. Recently, the ruling conservative party changed its name from the ‘Saenuri Party’ to the ‘Liberty Korea Party’ in order to clean the slate following President Park’s scandal.

Liberty Korea Party

The government party with 94 seats in the National Assembly. Winners of the last 2 presidential elections with President Lee Myung-bak (2007–2012; when the party was called ‘Grand National Party’) and President Park Geun-hye (2012-present; when the party was the ‘Saenuri Party’). Prior to the defection of 32 National Assembly representatives to the Bareun Party, the Liberty Korea Party was the ruling party in the legislative chamber. The party is centre-right, with a strong conservative ideology. Economically, it largely supports free trade and neoliberal economic policies. It’s business-friendly policies includes low corporate tax rates introduced during the Lee Myung-bak presidency. In regards to Foreign Policy, the party favors a tough stance against North Korea and strong ties with the United States.

The party holds the administrative divisions of Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Ulsan, Gyeonggi, North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang and Jeju. The party’s electoral base is the southeast, a region traditionally known as Yeongnam.

The party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2016 legislative elections as the liberal Minjoo Party of Korea won a plurality of seats, defeating the Saenuri Party by one seat. Polling had suggested that the Saenuri Party would win the election outright due to divisions in the opposition formed by the defection of non-Moon members to the People’s Party. The election resulted in President Park being labelled a “lame duck” president with nearly 2 years left in her term, unable to push her legislative agenda without opposition support.

Big names in the party also include Floor Leader Chung Woo-taek, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, former Governor of Gyeonggi Kim Moon-soo, and Former Assemblyman Chung Mong-joon (also sixth son of the founder of Hyundai Group).

Bareun Party (lit. Righteous Party)

The Bareun Party is a splinter party formed by the non-Park faction of the Liberty Korea Party (when it was called the Saenuri Party) following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Prior to the Choi Soon-sil scandal, the Saenuri Party was characterized by deep divisions between the pro-Park and anti-Park factions on topics including legislative election candidate selections and welfare policies. Pro-Park members had always dominated party leadership. The split was finally triggered following the Park impeachment motion and the election of a Pro-Park member, Chung Woo-taek, over non-Park member Na Kyung-won to the position of Floor Leader.

The party is led by fifth-term lawmaker Choung Byoung-gug, with a Supreme Council that includes former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon. The party was formed with the ideology of “re-establishing conservative values”. It is a centre-right party that pursues “reformative conservative” politics.

It is in favor of extending the period for the ongoing special investigation into the scandal involving President Park Geun-hye. It holds traditional conservative values in key political agendas such as economy and national security, whilst having a reformative stance on other issues related to the people’s livelihood such as welfare, labor, education and child care.

The defection group includes a number of former Saenuri heavyweights, including former Saenuri Party Leader Rep. Kim Moo-sung and former Floor Leader Rep. Yoo Seong-min, as well as big name politicians such as the Governor of Gyeonggi Nam Kyung-pil, and the Governor of Jeju Won Hee-ryong.

People’s Party

The People’s Party was established on January 10, 2016 after the high-profile defections of former presidential candidate and software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo and Democratic Party heavyweight Kim Han-gil from the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). It is the third largest parliamentary group with 39 representatives.

The party is largely seen as the political vehicle of Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent in the 2012 Korean presidential election and founder of AhnLab, Inc., an antivirus software company. Ahn burst into the political scene in 2012 as an anti-establishment force, polling above Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in before withdrawing to form an electoral alliance against the conservative Saenuri Party. He was previously co-chairman of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy. The split occurred after Ahn became in conflict with the “pro-Roh” faction that Moon, who become the party leader after Ahn resigned following the NPAD’s weak by-election performance in 2014, represented.

Ahn supports an increased capital gains tax, higher public welfare spending, and a cautious approach to free trade agreements. The People’s Party was introduced as an “anti-establishment centrist force”, and employs a reformative, liberal agenda. However, the party has very much aligned itself with the unified opposition to the conservative ruling party and government. Analysts believe that the party’s reformative approach caters to the youth disillusioned with corruption between chaebol conglomerates and politicians.

In the 2016 legislative elections, the party achieved unexpected success, coming second in party-list voting and winning a total 38 seats, enough to form a floor negotiating block. It won 23 of 28 districts in the Democratic Party base of Jeolla. Analysts believe that the party’s reformative message was able to captivate conservative voters disappointed with the ruling conservative party.

Other members of the People’s Party include Assembly members Moon Byeong-ho, Kim Dong-cheol, Park Jie-won (also chief of staff to President Kim Dae-jung), and Chun Jung-bae (also Minister of Justice under President Roh Moo-hyun).

Minjoo Party of Korea (lit. Together Democratic Party)

The Minjoo Party, formerly the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), is the largest party in the National Assembly, with 121 representatives. As the main opposition party, it has a centre-left political position and social liberal ideology. It currently holds 9 of 17 administrative divisions, including the special city of Seoul, Gwangju, Daejeon, Sejong, Gangwon, North Chungcheong (lean Saenuri territory, under Governor Lee Shi-jong), South Chungcheong (lean Saenuri territory, under Governor Ahn Hee-jung), North Jeolla, and South Jeolla. The party is the successor of the centre-left parties that carried former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

When it comes to welfare, the party’s platform emphasizes socially liberal positions including establishment of a social safety net, reinforcement of the government’s liability for people’s health, and housing as a social fundamental right. It favors a ‘Sunshine Policy’ with North Korea, innovated by former President Kim Daejung, which focuses on communication instead of aggression (and advocates denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and establishment of a peace regime). It is also more reconciliatory towards Japan and less focused on the alliance with America.

The party is dominated by members loyal to past President Roh Moo-hyun, who’s presidency was characterized by a fierce commitment to the Sunshine Policy and departure from the US-ROK Alliance. Roh committed suicide in 2009 during a bribery investigations by prosecutors, a probe that loyalists describe as unjust and subject to right-wing influence. Roh’s influence persists within the party, with de-facto leader Moon Jae-in (who officially resigned from the leadership post in 2015 after the NAPD fracture) his previous chief of staff and the carrier of Old Guard, Roh-era policies.

A fracture line is beginning to appear in the party due to the debate on Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment to rural Seongju County. Pro-Moon members are strongly against the plan, in line with the Sunshine Policy. In contrast, the marginal dissidents in the party are more inclined to consider the THAAD deployment instead of dismiss it out-right. The interim president of the party during the 2016 parliamentary elections, Kim Chong-in (who served in conservative Park Geun-hye’s government), gave the anti-Moon faction of the party more voice as he pushed a party identity focused on national security and market-friendly economic growth.

As such, while the Minjoo Party has historically focused on campaigning on welfare and livelihood, it has recently pivoted to economic growth and corporate restructuring. It has become increasingly business-friendly in order to lure conservative voters, recently changing its position regarding allowing for-profit hospitals.

The southwest, a region traditionally known as Honam, is the stronghold of the party. It is the origin of the democratization movement, which started when Park Chung-hee marginalized the region in favor of developing the southeast.

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Chung Sye-kyun, was previously a member of the party before declaring as an Independent in line with rules of the Speakership.

Other members of the party include liberal firebrand and Mayor of Seongnam Lee Jae-myung, Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon, former Prime Lee Hae-chan, Floor Leader Woo Sangho, Assemblyman Kim Boo-kyum (who launched to fame after winning in the strongly conservative homeland of Daegu).

Justice Party

The Justice Party is the smallest party in the National Assembly, with 6 representatives. It is a left-wing party with a dedicated progressive and reformist ideology. Founded on 21 October 2012, it advocates a democratic reformation of Korean capitalism and construction of an alternative economic system, as well as ecology based maintainable society. Moreover, its platform includes universal welfare and peace in the Korean Peninsula

It’s members include party leader Sim Sang-jung and floor leader Roh Hoe-chan.

The next story will focus on the candidates (declared, probable, and potential) and the issues that will surround the election.