May 2, 2016 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, US-Korea Relations

Lame Duck President or Parliament?

Prior to the National Assembly election, President Park Geun-hye complained of a “vegetative legislature” that was unable to pass bills. In Japan, they refer to a “twisted Diet” when two different parties control each of the two houses of parliament, creating gridlock. Yet, in South Korea, the same party had controlled both the unicameral legislature and the presidency but was unable to achieve progress.

South Korean majority parties, however, often act like a minority, lest they be seen reminiscent of the authoritarian regimes of the past. This has led to a tyranny of the minority, whereby the smaller group holds the larger party hostage.

The situation worsened after the 2012 legislative rules, passed in response to the embarrassment of having fist fights on the floor of the National Assembly. During the contentious Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement deliberations, “debate” was carried out with fire axes, water hoses, and fire extinguishers.

Rather than restraining themselves from committing the crime of assault and battery, or having members arrested for doing so, the National Assembly instead passed a law giving more power to the minority, i.e. the party that voters had determined they didn’t want running the government.

In the run-up to this year’s National Assembly election, factionalism, rebellion, and defections were prevalent in both major parties. The Saenuri Party was divided into pro-Park loyalists and an anti-Park (or at least not-Park) faction while several legislators jumped ship to run as independents.

The opposition Minjoo Party had its own in-house rivalries. To quell an internal insurgency, party leader Moon Jae-in passed the baton to Kim Jong-in, then pledged to quit politics altogether in a desperate appeal for the Honam region to support the party. Ahn Cheol-soo initiated a progressive rebellion by leading a group of defectors away from Minjoo, only to be forced to fight a rear-guard fight to keep his acolytes from rejoining the mother ship.

While electorate concerns over the nation’s economy ― reducing income disparity and unemployment ― were prevalent, the campaign focused less on policies and more on the parties – or more specifically the fighting within the parties. As a result, the election wasn’t so much about “who is more…qualified, capable, charismatic” but instead was about “who is less…chaotic, disorganized, and incompetent.”

The Saenuri Party did far worse than expectations and President Park has now lost her “election queen” crown. The weakened ruling Saenuri Party will remain plagued by factionalism while the opposition will be even more emboldened to derail any presidential initiative, in part to better position itself for the 2017 presidential election. But whether the Minjoo and People’s Party can work together remains uncertain.

Looking ahead, South Korean politics faces lots of blaming, renaming, claiming, laming, gaming, “same-ing,” but not taming. Within the Saneuri Party, everyone will be frantically blaming others for the election failure to avoid being selected as the sacrificial scapegoat. In South Korea, it is customary for parties to engage in renaming themselves after disastrous election results to shed the appearance of failure.

At the Minjoo and Peoples’ Party, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo will be claiming credit for their better than expected victories. Limited to a single five-year term, President Park will face an accelerated laming (of the duck) as result of her party’s poor electoral showing. Even as a lame duck, President Park will remain more powerful than the deeply divided National Assembly.

Looking ahead to next year’s South Korean presidential election, politicians and their parties will be gaming the system to best position themselves to be selected as candidates and improve the likelihood of victory. As for policies, the “same-ing” trend will continue with more convergence than divergence between the parties. In recent years, President Park and the Saenuri Party adopted many of the left’s economic democratization themes while the progressives abandoned their previous advocacy for unconditional outreach to North Korea.

Speaking of Pyongyang, no one has yet found a formula for taming Kim Jong-un’s penchant for raising tensions, threatening his neighbors, and expanding his nuclear arsenal. The North Korean regime will continue to bedevil South Korean policymakers.

The South Korean landscape has now become more fluid, uncertain, and unpredictable. The National Assembly election results likely undermined presidential runs by now former Saenuri leader, Kim Moo-sung, former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, and former Gyeonggi Governor Kim Moon-soo. There is no clear frontrunner for the 2017 presidential election, though U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who could run in either major party), Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, and Ahn Cheol-soo all have potential.

South Korea faces dire foreign threats and pressing domestic economic challenges. It is in the best interests of all South Korean politicians to overcome differences to develop viable policy solutions. Unfortunately, the bitterly divided political landscape after the National Assembly election makes continued gridlock to be far more likely.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Originally published in the Korea Times