South Korea election reverses weaken Park’s reform drive

SEOUL–South Korea’s ruling Saenuri party is reeling under the impact of its crushing defeat in the April 13 parliamentary elections. It not only has turned into a minority party under a sitting president, it must deal with the greatly expanded size of not one opposition group, but two parties — each armed with populist programs.

At the same time, the party’s poor showing at the polls raises a host of new problems such as the weakening leadership of President Park Geun-hye. Park is entering a lame-duck period as she approaches the end of her term 22 months from now. The South Korean constitution allows only one five-year term for president. So the party must find her successor while being hobbled in legislative gridlock.

Park Guen-hye

Park Guen-hye

These complicated political agendas come in the face of a slowing economy and rising unemployment. On the security side, North Korea is escalating its nuclear threats against the South. Seoul is putting itself on a wartime footing to cope with nuclear blackmail from the North.

If that isn’t daunting enough, recent poll results also have sobering implications. Final returns from Wednesday voting showed Saenuri winning 122 seats vs. 123 for the main opposition Minjoo party. The second opposition splinter group, the People’s party, made a surprising show of strength by clinching 38 seats. They wrested the entire southwestern region of Cholla. Cholla is the country’s main radical constituency and is strongly opposed to the Park government. The remaining 17 seats are divided between independents and the pro-union Justice Party.

An outsized opposition

While the new Assembly’s composition reflects a wide political spectrum, it also demonstrates that South Korea’s governing party must come to terms with an outsized opposition for the first time in 18 years. Among other things, the opposition’s combined strength of 161 seats can block any government-proposed legislation if it chooses.

Saenuri party logo

Saenuri party logo

“The voting results reflect the people’s stern judgement,” said party chairman Kim Moo Sung as he surveyed the results. “We must humbly accept this verdict,” he said. Kim and other party leaders promptly offered to resign, taking blame for the poor showing.

If the scale of what he and other party officials described as a voter revolt appeared excessive, Saenuri had only itself to blame for the results. In the past three years under Park’s leadership, Saenuri has resembled a political zoo of competing factions constantly at each other’s throat.

A stern disciplinarian, Park has developed a reputation for brooking no dissent in her party. As daughter of army dictator Park Chung Hee who led Korea with an iron fist for 18 years, President Park has also acquired the reputation of being an “imperial” figure, distant from the crowd.

Party members dissenting on her policy guidelines have reportedly been penalized by being excluded from candidate nominations for the election. To make matters worse, some of the most popular party figures have fallen on the wrong side. After being denied nominations, they ran as independents and got elected.

Voter resentment

Park’s tight control — and her intolerance of any free policy debate within the party — has turned Saenuri into an inflexible entity, constantly split between rebels and loyalists. The long protracted nomination process through which some candidates were denied a voice stirred resentment among district voters. President Park and her supporters now take the blame for causing voter opprobrium.

With the election over, the results are casting a heavy shadow over Park’s remaining term in office which ends in early 2018. Until that time, the massive opposition bloc in the Assembly can cause lots of problems for the governing party as it seeks to pass legislation for economic reform and deregulation.

For the past two years, Park has sought to push through an ambitious set of reforms aimed at restructuring a South Korean economy hampered by choking regulations. To cut through them and inject more vitality into the economy, she’s pushed for wholesale reform to make labor market more flexible.

Exporting ‘Descendants of the Sun’

She’s also strongly pushing for expansion and modernization of the tourism industry and other service-sector businesses by reducing government regulations. “Our tourism industry is so (inadequate) that we must turn back a large number of Chinese tourists because we have hard time finding accommodation for them,” she complained recently. She is also promoting exports of entertainment programs such the hit drama series “Descendants of the Sun.”

With the new Assembly expanding into a three-party format from the previous bipartisan structure, President Park must find more flexible ways to negotiate with the opposition. However, there’s concern on whether she can jump this hurdle and build a bridge with the opposition in the months ahead. She has only met with party leaders a few time since her election.

Ban Ki-moon in Blue House?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

The shock of a big electoral defeat is also focusing attention on efforts to find Park’s successor. With many current leaders lying low and shunning publicity due to the shock of defeat, the spotlight is once again on Ban Ki-moon, the current UN Secretary General, as a potential presidential candidate. As his term in office ends this year, speculation is rising that he may accept the draft. As a global diplomatic figure, widely respected for his integrity as well as experience on the world stage, some Saenuri people are looking forward to draft Ban in time for his retirement. So far, Ban himself has said nothing about his future plans.

In the event he accepts the offer, Ban will certainly be a candidate who towers over many potential candidates from the opposition. Ban is thus seen as the Saenuri party’s next hope for political survival.

Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review.

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