by Harry W.S. Lee for The Diplomat
South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye still has more than two years in office remaining, but already the nation’s next presidential candidates appear to have surfaced.
These are early days, but South Korea’s single-term system rules out the current president for the 2017 election. And with the current president’s ratings down to an all time low, major shifts made recently by both the ruling and opposition parties have given prognosticators
much to discuss.
Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 election, was
voted this week as head of the main opposition party, New Politics
Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). The former lawyer has overtaken Seoul
mayor Park Won-soon to become the most popular presidential candidate
across the spectrum, according to pollsters.
The sudden skyrocketing of Moon’s popularity may be due to the party
conventions effect, which as time passes may recede. But Park’s downward
trend in popularity suggests that any shortcoming of the opposition
will be its own doing.
Moon is also a strategic choice for NPAD. Every leftwing presidential
candidate is virtually guaranteed full backing in the left’s
traditional stronghold of southwest Jeolla province. But Moon has the
extra advantage of being able to split the conservative vote because his
constituency is the second most populous city, Busan, Gyeongsang
province, which is usually the ruling Saenuri Party’s turf.
Nonetheless, Moon faces the daunting task of reuniting a fragmented party that has
proved an ineffective opposition to a president who has stumbled from
one crisis to the next. NPAD’s recent approval ratings are down to just
24 percent compared with the ruling Saenuri Party’s 41 percent.
Also from Busan is the ruling Saenuri Party’s chairman, Kim Moo-sung,
whose election to the chairmanship last July, analysts say, had the
presidential election in mind. Kim is a five-term political heavyweight:
not too antiquated, but with enough clout within the party, if only to
be handicapped by his relatively low profile in the public. Again, the
fact that his constituency is Busan makes him a strategic choice for
pre-empting Busan’s potential leftward swing.
Kim also became chairman at a time when the party’s leadership came
under fire for excessive submission to the president and is expected to
restore parity between the party and the Blue House. It marks an end to
the days when the pro-Park faction controlled the party leadership, with
some analysts saying Kim represents an anti-Park sentiment amongst the
conservatives. Nonetheless, he faces the challenge of steering the
party’s relationship with an extremely unpopular president in the run up
to the presidential election.
‘Welfare Without Raising Taxes’
Welfare in South Korea has recently become a political flashpoint and
is likely to be a key election battleground. The Park administration
originally ran on the attractive platform of expanding ”welfare
without raising taxes,” namely corporate tax. But tax hikes on tobacco
and vehicles were introduced last September, followed by the revelation
this January that the annual income tax return method had been
restructured in such a way that tax was effectively increased. That has
fuelled the notion that the government had been taking from working
class pockets, whilst failing to expand welfare because of fiscal constraints.
Moon sides with calls for expanding welfare by increasing corporate tax, specifically on cash piles of the chaebol –
large family-run conglomerates, which have been central to South
Korea’s “economic miracle,” but are increasingly blamed for holding back
the economy. NPAD has also for long been in favor of expanding welfare,
particularly in the shape of free school meals to every South Korean
child, whether poor or heir to Samsung.
Saenuri party’s new leadership has flip-flopped its position on this. Kim was quoted
as saying that “excessive welfare would make people indolent,” but then
said expanding welfare is impossible without increasing taxes, only to
retract that statement, realigning himself with the Blue House’s
position of “welfare without increasing tax” and tax hikes as only last
Recent polling shows
that South Koreans won’t support more welfare, if it means they have to
pay for it, but a 52.8 percent majority is in favor of raising
corporate tax regardless of welfare. South Korea’s economy has become
increasingly polarized, while its population ages more, making welfare a
Foreign Policy Implications
How the next South Korean government navigates between a rising China and a rebalancing U.S. may vary somewhat depending on the party.
The ruling Saenuri party is “security conservative,” preferring to
take a strong stance over appeasement on North Korean provocations.
Nonetheless, Park has remained open to a summit with North Korea without
preconditions, despite North Korea’s continued nuclear program and jarring condemnations of U.S.-ROK military exercises.
Conservatives have traditionally endorsed maintaining alliance and
cooperation with the U.S., and Park’s support for U.S. sanctions on
North Korea in the wake of the Sony hacking can be seen as a natural
extension of that allegiance. As for China’s outreach, Park has been
very responsive, especially on the cultural and economic dimensions – a
departure from her predecessor Lee Myung-bak who had virtually neglected
On the other hand, Moon is a poster-child of the rhetorically
strident, “Roh-loyalists” – a faction of the left loyal to the legacy of
the late president Roh Moo-hyun – known for appeasement and compromise
in relations with North Korea. That all started with the Sunshine Policy
of Roh’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung.
Whilst recognizing the security needs for alliance with U.S., NPAD
has not hesitated to use anti-U.S. rhetoric, and remains open to
fostering relations with a China that increasingly seeks
to limit U.S.-ROK alliance cooperation. But as the youth, the NPAD’s
previous voting base, increasingly turns its back on the party and becomes more security conservative, NPAD may find itself unable to pursue that leftwing tradition.
If the current list seems dull, there is a dark horse. Just as the
last presidential election had a surprise candidate in the software
tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo, so the next one may also see one in the current UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Although Ban and his family have denied
any interest, he received
the highest rating as potential candidate back in November last year.
Both parties have tried to claim Ban, and he could be a game-changer
should he decide to run.
photo by flickr user “Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command”