April 8, 2008

April 8, 2008 | Commentary on Asia

Lee stumbles out of the starting block

There's a saying in New England: "If you don't like the weather, just wait 10 minutes. It is sure to change." The same can be said about South Korean politics. After Lee Myung-bak's landslide presidential victory in December, the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) seemed guaranteed to sweep next week's legislative elections.

But a series of missteps by the Lee administration and bitter infighting among conservatives have lowered expectations. The degree to which this will hinder Lee in altering South Korean policy and transforming its economy depends on how well the conservative factions can work together after the election.

Lee has watched his popularity plummet by 20 points from a post-election high of 70%. A public perception of an arrogantĀ and heavy-handed presidential transition team overstepping its bounds was partly to blame. Even more damaging were Lee's controversial cabinet minister nominees, several of whom had to withdraw over corruption allegations. The nomination debacle also had the unfortunate consequence of reminding voters of Lee's own series of alleged scandals, an image that the progressives sought to exploit.

Lee failed to heal the rift within the conservative movement after he narrowly defeated former GNP chairwoman Park Geun-hye for the party nomination. The hard-fought battle was to determine the composition and future policy direction of the party as well as who would be the GNP standard bearer. Park represented the traditional conservative wing of the party, while Lee pushed a "pragmatic conservatism" that appeared more centrist and appealing to a broader swath of the electorate.

Lee's supporters were perceived as being rude, if not vindictive, toward Park. Animosities over perceived slights were exacerbated by a contentious battle over the selection of candidates for the legislative election. The GNP did not choose 50 incumbent lawmakers, 39% of its current 128 National Assembly members, as candidates for next week's election. Park declared that the trust between her and Lee "had been shattered" and accused Lee of a vendetta by removing her supporters from the National Assembly. The president's representatives pointed out that an equal number of Lee's candidates were also removed from the final candidate list.

The bitter feud confirmed that deep fault lines remain within the party. Many incumbent National Assembly representatives who supported Park either were not selected or resigned in protest over how the nominations were handled. They are now running as a "coalition of independents", tentatively named the "Pro-Park Geun-hye faction".

Initial polls show these candidates will threaten GNP candidates in North and South Gyeongsang provinces, the traditional party stronghold. Several of these lawmakers have stated that, if they win the election, they will return to the GNP but as an independent faction. They have not defined how that would work.

Grinning like a Cheshire cat, conservative Lee Hoi-chang hopes to capitalize on the GNP's misfortunes by recruiting defecting legislators to his small Cheongchong province-based Liberty Forward Party. Lee, twice a GNP presidential candidate, ran as an independent candidate in the 2007 presidential race.

His party merged with the People First Party on February 12. Lee is hoping to be the political heir to former prime minister Kim Jong-pil who used a Cheongchong power base to create the third largest political party at the time. Lee said his party's goal is to obtain 50 seats, the same number as Kim Jong-pil's party once held, though he is unlikely to do so.

The end result is that the conservative vote will be split among three competing conservative factions.

Old progressive wine in new bottles

The progressive parties will benefit from the GNP's missteps but remain hampered by their own factionalism and uncertain policy message. The progressive opposition remains weak and in disarray after losses in the presidential election and four previous legislative by-elections.

The progressives remain a disparate collection of groups and individuals unable to define, let alone rally behind, a common vision or theme. The long-running battle between the liberal and centrist wings continues. They remain undecided whether to battle Lee Myung-bak for the policy center or advocate ultra-left policies as an alternative.

Despite its foibles, the GNP still commands 46% public support to the United Democratic Party's (UDP) 17%. In an attempt to gain public favor through repackaging, the UDP replaced at least 30% of its incumbent National Assembly members with new candidates. The party said the ousted incumbents had performed poorly, been convicted of crimes, or had low public support.

The move resonated to some degree with the electorate, but party chairman Sohn Hak-kyu admitted, "Although the party is doing better, we are still in perilous condition, like a patient who has just been taken off his oxygen respirator."

The progressives have tried to increase their support by depicting their cause as way to defend South Korean democracy, by balancing power between the executive and legislative branches. This appeals to the Korean concept of yeoso yadae (smaller ruling party, bigger opposition party). The UDP has dramatized that "if the GNP seizes enough seats to have power to change the constitution, it could pose a threat to democracy as we would have a multiple-party system in name only". The UDP hopes to win 100 seats, but this remains doubtful.

As Seoul goes, so goes the nation

Political regionalism, referred to as Korea's "east-west conflict", remains the dominant factor in South Korean politics, despite efforts to reduce its significance. Political parties' support relies largely on core regional constituencies: The southwestern Jeolla provinces are traditional progressive strongholds, and the southeastern Gyeongsan provinces are reliably conservative.

However, to win nationwide elections, parties must reach beyond these regions to gain sufficient support. The most critical swing regions are the Seoul city district and the Gyeonggi and Chungcheong provinces in the center of the country. Seoul and Gyeonggi are perceived as transient regions with less pronounced senses of regional identity due to the large influx of population in recent decades. Voter loyalty is often determined by ancestral home district.

In a high stakes gamble, the UDP is pitting its party leaders against GNP favorites in two conservative strongholds in downtown Seoul. Sohn Hak-kyu and Chung Dong-young, both failed 2007 UDP presidential candidates, will battle heavyweight GNP National Assembly members Park Jin and Chung Mong-joon - a 2002 presidential candidate - in the high visibility Jongno and Dongjak districts of Seoul.

Although Park Jin is running in his home district, the other three eschewed easy re-election in their districts. Instead, they chose to put their political lives on the line in hopes of raising their stature as presidential candidates in five years. Jongno is the symbolic center of South Korean politics and seen as a swing district. As such, polls on both races will be closely watched as a key indicator of any shifts in the electorate mood.

Ever-shifting political landscape

Early hopes for a GNP super majority of 200 seats, sufficient to revise the constitution, are long gone. Now the party hopes to gain a simple majority (150 of the 299 seats). Publicly, the party has announced a goal of winning 167 seats, but privately it expresses concern that it may fail to gain a simple majority.

Public support for the GNP has been falling during the past month. An MBC poll found that 47% of respondents were disappointed by the GNP's candidate selection process, while 57% approved of the UDP's nomination process. A mid-March Chosun Ilbo poll of 17 electoral districts in Seoul showed the GNP ahead in seven districts, the UDP ahead in one, and eight districts too close to call. The growing stature of the pro-Park alliance is more bad news for the GNP.

Although the election will doubtless produce a net increase of seats for the GNP and a net loss for the progressives, the change from initial expectations will impact the relative strengths of the parties. The progressives, foreseeing a forced exile in the political wilderness after their drubbing in December, will be reinvigorated to attack Lee Myung-bak and attempt to derail his policies.

The conservatives, emboldened if not cocky after Lee's victory, are now chastened and face serious challenges from within their own house. Park Geun-hye has warned that "the GNP will have a hard time staying united after the election is over".

Rather than produce an electoral affirmation of its principles, the GNP will have to confront serious challenges after the elections. Will the three conservative factions fight or work together once the new legislators are seated? Can Lee Myung-bak woo the defectors back to the GNP? What impact will it have on his ability to implement sweeping economic and foreign policy reforms?

Of greater consequence for South Korea, will the nation return to the legislative gridlock seen during the Roh Moo-hyun administration if the GNP underperforms in the election? Both parties have had trouble connecting with the voters, in large part because the campaign has been strikingly bereft of policy debate.

In any case, President Lee will have to operate under greater constraints than expected immediately after his landslide victory in December. Moreover, the global economic downturn and rising oil prices will make it more difficult for him to easily deliver on his economic campaign promises. Pyongyang's expulsion of South Korean officials in the Kaesong joint economic venture may mark the first in a series of North Korean tests of the new president.

But balanced against these challenges will be significant improvements in Seoul's relationships with the US and Japan, allowing for greater policy integration and leverage over North Korea. Most importantly, Lee has set South Korea on the right policy path, undoing the damage wrought by five years of Roh's administration. And as the old Korean adage goes, "A journey well begun is half done."

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in Asia Times