President Park’s ruling Saenuri party suffered a surprise defeat in this week’s National Assembly elections, making it the first ruling party in Korea in 16 years to govern without a majority. The conservative Saenuri party won 122 seats for the 300-member National Assembly, which leaves the prospect of an early start to the lame-duck session of her presidency. The main opposition Minjoo Party won 123 seats, and the newly formed People’s Party led by tech-titan and former Minjoo Party member Ahn Cheol-soo won 38. Of note, Freshmen Members will make up 44% of the National Assembly, and female representation increased slightly to 26 members, but this remains well below the OECD average of nearly 25%.
The results of the election clearly signaled to the current leadership that the public’s main priority is domestic economics. The voters are concerned about issues of fundamental economic security such as growing inequality, high youth unemployment, and increasing levels of household debt. It is important to note that these concerns are part of a growing global trend that are not specific to Korea and are the same issues that President Park campaigned on in December 2012. This may not be surprising considering the oscillation of party leadership between the parties in recent months, a dynamic that may place strains on cooperative efforts moving forward.
As the numbers indicate, no party has a majority and the potential for political gridlock is high. An empowered progressive voice will continue to criticize the Park Administration for high unemployment, which may stall any momentum the government had in pushing through labor reforms. There will also be calls for the President to alter her hardline approach on North Korea, although recent provocations from Pyeongyang make any shift in inter-Korean policies unlikely.
Moving forward, Ahn Cheol-soo’s centrist People’s Party will be a key to watch moving forward and he has an opportunity to re-shape the political landscape leading into the 2017 Presidential elections. Park’s reaction to the National Assembly is also something observers should be watching. Will she view the new mandate as hostile or as an opportunity to push through some structural reforms to achieve her campaign promises of economic democratization that were subsequently used by the Minjoo Party during these elections?
While there is general agreement on some of the major problems to be tackled – e.g. high youth unemployment, high household debt, inadequate social welfare/retirement coverage – accompanied by some narrowing of the gaps between the two major parties on policy, it remains unclear what approaches the parties will take toward trying to forge compromises on these and other issues. Flexibility and willingness to compromise among President Park and the key political parties of course will be critical to moving forward with any legislation, although there are also legitimate concerns that we may see more political gridlock and posturing than action at least through the coming Presidential election in 2017.