A sea-change election
The results of the by-election for mayor of Seoul marked a sharp departure from previous elections.
Park Won-soon, the unified opposition candidate won a decisive victory which ended nine years of Grand National Party dominance over City Hall. Park is the first independent candidate to capture the mayor's office since elections for the post began in 1995.
In looking at the election results, analysts have concluded that frustration with the status quo among younger voters caused the upheaval. The election results have been cast as a strong message of dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration and support for Ahn Cheol-soo, the founder of AhnLab, who is popular among younger voters. Some analysts have focused on the election as foreshadowing the battle lines of the 2012 presidential election.
All of these analyses have merit, but they miss two profound trends that will continue to affect Korean politics for years to come: higher levels of education and greater cultural diversity.
The 386 Generation of persons born in the 1960s now fill the ranks of 40-somethings. This was the first generation in Korean history to attend university in large numbers. The number of university students rose suddenly in the early 1980s after the government of Chun Doo-hwan greatly increased the number of new admissions. The result was a sudden increase in the number of university students in the 1980s, which, ironically, helped feed the pro-democracy movement during the decade.
Greater political freedom and economic growth since the 1990s has given younger generations’ educational opportunities that were imaginable to previous generations. Travel abroad and overseas study were once luxuries for a select few, but have now become common among university students.
Today, Korea boasts one of the highest rates of graduation from high schools and universities in the world. Near ubiquitous access to the Internet, a wide range of for-profit private institutes (hagwon), and a tradition of corporate-sponsored training help college graduates continue their education as they enter the workplace.
By contrast, older generations had far more limited opportunities. During the 1950s and 1960s, university education was for a select few. Things improved somewhat in the 1970s, but the number of university students remained low. The dictatorship of Park Chung-hee limited free speech and instituted a rigid public ethos that made it difficult to develop independent thinking. The history of dictatorship weighs heavily on older generations, causing many to vote for the conservative candidate out of habit.
Education and political change are closely related because people with more education are more skeptical. Greater skepticism makes it more difficult for politicians to rely on predictable voting blocs because voters think and act more independently. Education also helps people develop learning skills, which they can use in the process of deciding who to vote for. Learning skills help people develop ways to fill gaps in their knowledge and to develop ways to get information that they need.
An independent candidate without any previous electoral experience, such as Park Won-soon, would not have had much of a chance in the past because the ratio of educated votes was lower. Only now, when the generation of better educated voters in their 20s, 30s, and 40s has reached a critical mass, is it possible for such a candidate to win.
Higher levels of education also foster greater cultural diversity. Cultural diversity in this context means diversity of thought and lifestyles that leads to the emergence of various ``small cultures." Each small culture is composed of people with various common interests, lifestyles, and worldviews. Individuals, of course, may be members of various small cultures such as a hobby group, a neighborhood group or a place of worship.
The concept of small cultures is closely related to the concept of citizenship because members of small cultures do so voluntarily and they are free to leave at will. Compared to blood and school ties, which are central components of an individual's social capital, small cultures are matters of choice that play a peripheral role in the formation of social capital.
The growth of small cultures in Korea has coincided with democratization and the rise in the standard of living since the 1990s. Like higher levels of education, the spread of small cultures puts them in touch with different ideas and worldviews. At the same, small cultures help spread the idea of participatory citizenship. Park Won-soon's background as the leader of non-profit organizations gave voters confidence that his interest in promoting small-culture citizens' organizations was genuine.
The recent by-election for mayor of Seoul is a sea change in Korean politics because is marks the decline of party politics and the emergence of issue-centered politics that appeals to voters who think independently and, equally important, want results from those whom they elect. Future politicians take note.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.