Domestic Politics Toward 2012
By Tong Kim
The outcome of South Korea's by-elections (called special elections in the United States), held to fill five vacant seats of the National Assembly last week, forecasts political trouble and maneuvering lying ahead for the two major parties ― the governing Grand National Party (GNP) and the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) ― as they move toward next year's nationwide local elections, mindful of the presidential election of 2012.
A poll conducted by Real Meter the day after the GNP's total defeat with losses in all five districts, including two that were considered its home turf in Gyeongju and Ulsan, showed a sharp plunge in President Lee Myung-bak's approval rating to 25 percent with an increased disapproval rating of 71 percent. The GNP still has 170 seats in the 299-seat national legislature but it is divided internally by two competing groups ― the pro-Lee faction and the pro-Park Geun-hye faction.
In their two home districts, one GNP candidate, who had strong backing from President Lee's brother and an influential senior GNP member, was defeated by an independent, who ran on his affiliation with the pro-Park group, and the other candidate lost to a progressive candidate who ran in coalition with the Democratic Labor Party. The support rating for the GNP plummeted to 23.5 percent from 37.7 percent.
The elections handed the DP a mixed outcome, as it also lost two home base districts in Deokjin and Wansan in Jeonju, but it won the hotly contested metropolitan district of Bupyeong. The winners for the Jeonju districts were Chung Dong-young, a former unification minister, and Shin Kuhn, a former director of the National Intelligence Service, who both ran as independents after they were rejected by the DP. Yet, the DP's support rating went up by 2.5 percent to 16.7 percent.
If the DP had nominated Chung as its party contender for Deokjin, Chung would not have solicited Shin to run in a coalition with him for Wansan, and the DP would have won three out of the five elections. It would have boosted the DP's rating much higher. This could have helped to support the DP's claim that the elections were a vote of confidence against the Lee government and the GNP and in favor of the DP.
Cheong Wa Dae made no comment on the result of the elections. But the recent elections were an ominous warning to the Lee government and the GNP. The Lee government could not deliver much of its promised services to the people due to a bad start and the enormous trouble from candlelit vigils that almost paralyzed the government last year.
After the beef issue subsided, the unexpected economic trouble ― that Seoul describes as having originated from America ― upset the positive prospects of economic growth that the government said was on the way. Growth shrank to 2.2 percent in 2008 from 5.1 percent in 2007. Unemployment has soared and more people have trouble finding a job. The government says Korea is not alone in this global economic crisis, but the people do not appreciate it. They expect the government to do something to improve the economic situation.
Charges from the progressive forces that the Lee government is going politically backward from democracy to dictatorship or the deteriorated inter-Korean relationship that has led to the increasing threat from the North do not yet seem to be major concerns to the South Korean public. The economy is still the first priority.
President Lee has a super-size governing party, which so far has not been very effective in providing legislative support for the administration. Lee has four more years in his term. However, if the GNP loses badly in next year's local elections, which will elect new governors of provinces, mayors of special large cities and other municipalities, and administrators of counties as well as local legislators, it could precipitate an early lame duck phenomenon to cripple the capacity and the function of the Lee government.
Following the local elections, both the GNP and the DP along with other minor parties will be geared up for the next presidential election. It is in this context that the political return of Chung Dong Young ― the DP's former presidential candidate who ran unsuccessfully against Lee Myung-bak ― is especially significant.
Chung has pledged to return to the DP, but his wish is unlikely to be readily accepted by the DP leaders, some of whom are already eyeing the big election in 2012 for themselves. Politicians often put their own interests first before the interest of the party or cause they say they support. According to the same poll cited above, Chung, who has a leader's quality and a vision for the future of the Korean Peninsula, outranks any potential DP competitor by a wide margin. In the worst-case scenario, Chung may be forced to form his own party to run for the presidency.
If the next presidential election will be held without a constitutional amendment to the current five-year single term presidency, and if there is no major shift in party alignment, the next contest will likely be fought between the GNP and the DP or a new emerging party. For the GNP, Park, a former party president, has 41 percent of support for a next presidential candidate. Her presumptuous rivals ― including Chung Mong-joon, a five-term National Assemblyman and the richest GNP politician, and a few others will have an uphill battle to challenge her.
Park, an unmarried daughter of the late President Park Chung-hee, who is credited with Korea's economic progress but criticized for inhibiting democratic development, had come very close to the GNP's last presidential nomination in her competition with Lee. Her chance of success is contingent upon the success of his presidency.
If President Lee fails, it would be difficult for her or any other GNP candidate to win the next big election. Conversely, if Lee fails during his term, Chung Dong-young's or another opponent's chance will increase to capture a victory in 2012. What's your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com.