Constants and variables
Last week, official registration of candidates for the 19th National Assembly election closed, marking the beginning of campaigning that will conclude with election on April 11. Politics will be thick in the air for the next three weeks as Koreans take a closer look at the candidates and decide who to elect.
Since the beginning of the Republic in 1948, National Assembly elections have played an important role in gauging national sentiment and promoting democracy. During President Syngman Rhee's rule (1948-1960), the ruling party, or the party headed by the president, enjoyed small majorities in the National Assembly.
After the 1960 April Revolution, opposition Democratic Party won a strong majority, but Park Chung-hee seized power in a coup d'état in May of 1961 and dissolved the National Assembly. Park's ruling party won solid majorities in the 1963 and 1967 elections.
In the 1971 election, which took place closely after President Park defeated Kim Dae-jung for the presidency, the opposition did very well, but the National Assembly was terminated shortly after the election as Park became more dictatorial. Elections were held during the rest of the 1970s, but Park maintained strong control though a system of appointed representatives.
After the assassination of President Park in 1979, Korea was thrown into turmoil and Chun Doo-hwan consolidated power to became president in 1980. His power grab dashed hopes for democratization after Park's death, and he was unpopular from day one.
The National Assembly election in 1985 was a major turning point in the history of democracy as opposition parties made a strong showing, which emboldened them to expand their efforts against Chun. Spreading opposition to Chun's rule caused him to accept a direct presidential election and democratic reforms in 1987, just one year before the Summer Olympics in Seoul. The system of a five-year single term of office for the president and four-year terms of office for the representatives emerged out of the 1987 reforms.
The first National Assembly election held after democratization was in 1988. The voters denied the party of President Roh Tae-woo a majority, making him the first president to govern with opposition parties in control of the Assembly. Rhee, Park, and Chun all faced a strong opposition, but they retained narrow majorities.
To govern, Roh created an alliance with opposition leaders and former election rivals Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil. The 1988 election set a pattern that continued until the 2004 election, in which the party of the president was denied an outright majority, and the president was forced to cobble together a majority through alliances with other parties.
The 2000s saw the emergence of a 2.5-party system as center-right and center-left forces grouped themselves into two major parties, leaving smaller parties behind. The 2004 election took place a month after President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached, and voters rallied behind him to give his party the first outright majority since democratization. The 2008 election took place shortly after the 2007 presidential election in which Lee Myung-bak won a resounding victory. Voters extended Lee's winning streak by giving his party an outright majority.
This brief review of National Assembly elections reveals two constant and one variable. The first constant is that the party of the president in power has been the largest party, often ruling with small majorities or through alliances. This suggests that voters are wary of presidential power and legislative gridlock at the same time.
The second constant is that center-right parties have usually been the largest party, which suggests that the center of Korean politics lies slightly to the right.
The variable is the existence of leaders who capture the imagination of voters. Leaders, both presidents and opposition leaders, that command loyalty cause swings away from the constant. Popular opposition leaders in 1960s, such as Park Chung-hee, the charismatic Kim Dae-jung in 1971, popular opposition party leaders in 1985 and 1988, the popular but beleaguered Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 caused swings away from the constants.
Currently, the ruling Saenuri Party has a comfortable majority with 173 of the 299 seats, which will not hold given President Lee's decline in popularity. The constants and variables make this a difficult election to predict. The constants suggest that the Saenuri Party will lose seats, but will remain the largest party.
The problem is the variable. The opposition parties do not have charismatic leaders, whereas Park Geun-hye, the Saenuri Party's most likely presidential candidate, is one of the most popular politicians in Korea.
All things considered, the constants and the variable of popularity suggest moderate losses for the Saenuri Party. Such an outcome would indicate that Park is a strong contender in the presidential election in December. Large losses, however, would mean a move to the left and foretell a major change ahead.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at email@example.com.