Rumbling and positioning for the National Assembly election this April will intensify after the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January. The results of the election will impact the rest of President Moon Jae-in’s term and set the stage for the next presidential election in May 2022.
Currently, no party has a majority in the National Assembly. President Moon’s Democratic Party is the largest party, but it relies on support from sympathetic minor parties and independents. The largest opposition party is the Liberty Korea Party, but it has had difficulty blocking the Democratic Party because of testy relations with minor parties.
For the Democratic Party and the Liberty Korea Party, the overriding goal of the election is to reach an outright majority, if not a working majority. With 129 seats out of 300 in total, the Democratic Party is close to that goal; the Liberty Korea Party has only 108. The most important question of the election is whether the Democratic Party can increase its standing with the possibility of achieving an outright majority of seats.
History is not on its side. Since democratization in 1987, there have been eight National Assembly elections. In most cases, the party holding the presidency lost seats. Losses were greater toward the end of a president’s term. This suggests that voters view National Assembly elections as a chance to check the power of the president or to send a message to an unpopular president.
The upcoming election comes about three years -- or more than halfway -- into President Moon’s term, so losses would normally be expected. Two variables that have not existed in previous National Assembly elections may work in the president’s favor.
First, President Moon remains popular, unlike most of his predecessors at similar points in their terms. Only Kim Dae-jung was able to maintain popularity three years into his term. Moon remains popular despite a weak economy, which typically weighs heavily on popularity. What explains Moon’s continued popularity?
The biggest reason is a large and loyal base of supporters. In the 2017 presidential election, Moon won 41 percent of the vote. A recent poll shows that 41 percent of voters plan to support him until the end of his term, which suggests that he has lost almost no support during his term. This is a rare feat in the history of South Korean politics. All his predecessors ended their terms with approval ratings below 30 percent; Park Geun-hye fell to 4 percent. If President Moon completes his term at 41 percent, he will make history.
Second, generational change has severely affected the image of the Liberty Korea Party. Political parties in Korea have long appealed to regional loyalty to attract supporters, but this works mainly with older voters. Younger generations view the Liberty Korea Party as old and authoritarian and have no interest in supporting it, even if they have reservations about President Moon and his policies.
Unlike previous generations, younger generations are more skeptical and less passionate about politics than older generations. They may not be enthusiastic about President Moon, but they are equally, if not more, skeptical of his opponents. Increasingly, younger generations are viewing Moon’s passionate 386-Generation supporters as old and authoritarian, but that will not be enough to move them over to the Liberty Korea Party.
The conservative opposition is also in a state of disarray that began with the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. Several new conservative parties have formed in the hope of attracting moderate conservatives who are repelled by the Liberty Korea Party. Not all the conservative parties will run a full slate of candidates, but they will run enough to split the conservative vote in swing districts.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, remains unified because President Moon is holding onto his popularity. This puts the Democratic Party in a strong position to gain the 22 seats it needs to gain a majority. Such an achievement would mark the first time since the 2004 election, during the term of Roh Moo-hyun, that a liberal-leaning party has won a majority in the National Assembly.
The day after the election, attention will turn to the presidential election in 2022. By then, younger generations will be a little older, but most likely just as alienated from politics as they are today. The direction they take will strongly influence politics for the rest of the 2020s. The political group that reaches out to younger generations will be well rewarded. If none do, then they will most likely shake things up by creating a new political group.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.