April 25, 2016 | By Karl Friedhoff

Winners & Losers of South Korean National Assembly Election


Kim Chong-in (C), interim leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, attends a rally for the April 13 parliamentary elections in Seoul, South Korea, April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

On April 13, South Korea held its National Assembly elections, and the results were a surprise. The conservative Saenuri Party—to which the President, Park Geun-hye, belongs—lost its majority in an unexpected defeat. It retained just 122 of the 300 seats, despite holding more than 150 seats heading into the election and had a commanding lead in the polls. The progressive Minjoo Party won 123 seats in an election virtually everyone expected it to lose, and marked its first win in a national election since 2004. A third party, the People’s Party, unexpectedly took 38 seats despite having existed for less than six months. Here’s a quick look at the winners and losers from the election.

Loser: President Park Geun-hye

This is an easy one. This marks the first time that the party of a sitting Korean president has both lost seats and emerged with fewer seats than the opposition. Former sitting presidents have seen their parties lose seats but remain the single largest party. Others saw their party gain seats, but remain minority parties. With two years left in office, Ms. Park now faces an uphill battle on prominent issues such as restructuring and reviving the economy. While previous predictions of a lame duck period were premature, she has now entered the last phase of her presidency.

Winner: Moon Jae-in

Mr. Moon was previously the Minjoo Party’s candidate for president in 2012 and remains the de facto head of the party. In way-too-early horse race polling for the presidential election in 2017, Mr. Moon—highlighted by the blue box around his name—is currently second. If that fellow above him—marked by the grey box—looks familiar, he should. That is Ban Ki-moon, current Secretary General of the United Nations. No one knows if Mr. Ban will run and he is not affiliated with any party. All in all, the election victory puts Mr. Moon front and center for 2017, reviving his once-dead presidential aspirations.

Winner: Ahn Cheol-soo

Dr. Ahn—a real-life MD—may be the biggest winner of this election cycle. His case is also the most interesting.  He was a political outsider until a few years ago, but burst onto the scene to face off with Moon Jae-in for the progressive presidential nomination in 2012. He lost that battle due to poor timing and poor decision making, and his consolation prize was a seat in the National Assembly. At the time, he was a political newcomer, had no political allies, and joining the Assembly removed him from the national scene. His high profile split with Mr. Moon’s party in January 2016 to form the People’s Party returned him to national prominence. His fledgling party now holds 38 seats and he has positioned himself as a centrist. His support will be critical for either the conservative Saenuri or the progressive Minjoo to advance their agendas.

Dr. Ahn’s presidential ambitions are no secret, but it would be a mistake for him to make a second attempt at the presidency in 2017. Instead, he should continue to build his base and reputation in the National Assembly, and then make a serious run in 2022. Thirty-eight seats is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is not enough to propel him to the Blue House. If he can bide his time, his candidacy in 2022 could be formidable.

Loser: Polling

As noted by Washington Post correspondent, Anna Fifield, the polls in Korea leading up to the National Assembly election were unhelpful in forecasting this election. Gallup Korea had the conservative Saenuri Party with support at 40 percent from December 2015 up to the election. Minjoo Party support was at 20 percent, and support for the People’s Party at 17 percent. Those polls were far off of the actual results, but there was little reason to suspect something was amiss. After the 2012 elections, the Minjoo Party did little to gain broader public support, and President Park’s approval ratings remained in decent shape.



Moreover, the polling ahead of the 2012 National Assembly election did a reasonable job of allowing an observer to correctly predict a Saenuri victory and a Minjoo loss as the April 2012 election approached.
 


The answers for why the two polls behaved differently are not easy, even though the methodology for both was the same. The political structure in South Korea likely bears some responsibility.
  But this still does not help to explain why the polls in 2012 allowed for a reasonable forecast before the election and the 2016 polls did not. For now, we will have to wait until the raw numbers from the exit polls are released to gain more insight.

Conclusion

As recently as just last month, the Minjoo Party was seen as a non-viable opposition party with no serious platform and no public support outside of its staunchest loyalists. With the 2016 National Assembly election victory it has emerged as a serious player, but it is not yet clear what it hopes to achieve other than blocking the initiatives of the president and her Saenuri Party. If it is to have any hope of winning the 2017 presidential election, it will need to establish a clear platform that goes well beyond obstruction and attempt to implement it. It has been 12 years since the Minjoo last won a national election, and it will need to show that it can address the challenges the country faces. If it does not, it could easily wander back into the desert, not knowing when its next victory will come.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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