It is difficult to believe, but South Korea came to democracy only in 1988 with the election of Roh Tae-woo as president — its democratic institutions are really newer there than in places like post-Franco Spain or post-Pinochet Chile, and akin to the gradual opening of democracies in which were effectively one-party states, such as post-war Italy under the Christian Democrats and post-war Japan under the Liberal Democratic Party.
With that in mind, South Korea goes to the polls a week from today to elect its legislature — a competitive election that will serve as a precursor to next year’s presidential race.
The two main parties are the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’), the conservative party, renamed from the Grand National Party only in February, and the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’), the chief liberal party. Two smaller parties include the Liberty Forward Party, a second conservative party, and the Unified Progressive Party, a leftish party.
The legislative elections will be a key test for the incumbent party, whose president, Lee Myung-bak, remains unpopular over the economy — income inequality has been rising in a nation that has had a storybook rise from developing country to one of the world’s most developed countries. In particular, the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement recently adopted has been a flashpoint in the campaign — it is a rare example of an FTA that has passed the U.S. Congress in October 2011, but it remains stalled in the South Korean National Assembly.
Lee is also under fire for an ongoing scandal involving improper surveillance and potentially illegal internal spying in the Office of the Prime Minister that reminds voters of the more autocratic South Korea of the post-war period through the 1980s. That dynamic that has not exactly helped Park Geun-hye, the leader of the Saenuri Party, an interparty rival to Lee and likely Saenuri Party presidential candidate. She is also the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the autocratic ruler of South Korea who prioritized the country’s economic development over its political development; South Koreans today have an understandably mixed view on his legacy. But Park’s Saenuri leads polls, however narrowly, in part because of her distance from Lee and the surveillance scandal — ironically, the dictator’s daughter has wrapped herself in the cloak of moderation and reform.
Lee and Park, however, still mark a contrast to a decade of left-leaning rule in South Korea, first under Kim Dae-jung, a longtime crusader for democratic reform prior to 1988, and then under his successor Roh Moo-hyun. Kim, who became president in 1998, continued anti-corruption reforms, strengthened South Korea’s welfare state, introduced the more accomodating “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea and shepherded South Korea through the Asian currency crisis. Roh’s presidency was seen as somewhat less successful, and was marked with partisan wringing, especially as to US-South Korean relations — Roh was relatively anti-American for South Korea at a time when the US was under fire for its Iraq invasion and with South Koreans open to turn the page on US’s six-decade-long military presence in South Korea. Roh committed suicide, tragically, a year after ending his term in office, amid bribery allegations.
The left is not, however, out of the running, given Lee’s unpopularity.
Han Myeong-sook, prior to last Friday’s official opening of the campaign (in contrast to the never-ending American election cycle, this one will run just 12 days!), successfully concluded an electoral coalition with the UPP. Han, who previously served as South Korea’s first female prime minister from 2006-07, has watched a lead turn south as Park has come to be seen as someone who can shake up the South Korean right amid the scandals plaguing Lee.
The election, last October, of the independent, but NDP-backed Park Won-soon, as mayor of Seoul, was seen as a striking rebuke of the Saenuri Party (then still the Grand National Party).
The election has also seen other more uplifting moments — for example, Cho Myung-chul is running on the Saenuri Party ticket to become the first defector to stand in the South Korean parliament. Lee has taken a more markedly hard-line stance against North Korea, following a decade of relatively friendly overtures from the South. Cho defected from North Korea in 1994, and his campaign is one for better treatment of North Korean defectors, who often find themselves unemployed and downtrodden in the fast-paced South Korean marketplace:
Like many North Koreans, Cho found it hard to settle into the South. With their distinctive accents, many northerners are shunned by their southern brethren and find themselves working in menial jobs. Some have even grown disillusioned enough to return to the North.
“Many defectors can’t settle in; they struggle with unemployment and being treated like social outcasts,” said Cho.