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  • Zhicong Liu

South Korean President-Elect Yoon-Suk-Yeol and the Dilemma of Parliamentary Politics

Updated: May 8, 2022

On March 9, Yoon-Suk-yeol was elected the 20th president of South Korea. Mr. Yoon, who represented the People Power Party, defeated Lee Jae-Myung, supported by the Democratic Party, by a slim margin of 0.73%, signifying the comeback of right-wing conservative forces after five years of liberal rule by Moon Jae-In. In the trend of turning right in global politics, the victory of Yoon Suk-yeol, who raised the banner of populism and “small government,” does not seem a surprisingly independent event. However, this election reveals new changes in South Korea's political ecology and public attitudes toward political issues. In order to understand the attraction of Yoon-Suk-yeol's campaign policy, it’s essential to examine the Moon Jae-In government's poor implementation of its governing goals through economic, political, and diplomatic lenses.

President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol. Source: OpenDemocracy

Guided by the idea of government intervention in the economy, Moon Jae-In expanded the scale of state-owned enterprises to decrease the unemployment rate, raise the minimum wage level to expand consumption, and increase the money supply to facilitate the development of the economy. However, most of Yoon's plans backfired and produced negative consequences. During his administration, not only did reform of state-owned enterprises not effectively address the unemployment problem, but also increased debt significantly on account of increased redundancy of human resources and corruption brought about by pandering policies; the rise in the minimum wage brought the unemployment rate to a 10-year high of 4.5%, and increasing the money supply without additional guiding policies caused house prices to soar by 52%.

In the political field, although Moon Jae-In had found glory as a human rights lawyer who consistently helped poor people in court, like his comrade and sixteenth president Roh Moo-Hyu, Moon's trusted follower Cho Kuk was caught up in an influence-peddling scandal about her daughter. It almost destroyed Moon's reputation and shamed his central policy of fighting corruption, strengthening the voter's distrust of him. Moon's approval rating was 81% after he was elected in 2017, but dropped to 32% by November 2021 according to Realmeter. In conclusion, except for holding corrupt officials to account, Moon Jae-In failed politically and economically during his tenure.

Rising housing prices and inflation have made young South Koreans increasingly desire for equality, which was Moon's ultimately unfulfilled 2017 campaign promise.

"I will demolish ideological distrust between regions, social classes and generations and find ways to resolve irregular workers' problems. I will build a country without discrimination," Moon promised.

These failed hopes of equality, the stress of modern society, and the high unemployment rate combined to push the country's youth into desolation.

After growing politically disillusioned with Moon Jae-in’s administration, young people became the focus of both left and right-leaning parties in the most recent election. As the final representative of the Democratic Party of Korea, Lee-Jae Myung chose to send money to people directly instead of taking Moon's top-down approach of increasing currency liquidity to expand demand. In contrast, People Power Party's representative Yoon Suk-Yeol advocated deregulation of the economy by the government, letting private enterprises create jobs naturally and subsidizing small and medium enterprises to reduce the unemployment rate. Behind the bitter fight between these two parties and ideologies, one person rose to become an undeniable political force: Ahn Chul-soo.

As a centrist candidate in the 2012, 2017, and 2022 South Korean Presidential elections, Ahn Chul-soo supported the right's relatively open economic policies but uncompromising foreign policy, especially regarding North Korea. Mr. Ahn attracted his votes not only by his centrist policies but also by his people-friendly campaign policy and his nonpartisan style, namely ‘do not oppose for the sake of opposing’.

During the run-up to the election on October 24, 2021, Ahn Chul-soo criticized that the present political circle is like the South Korean hit drama Squid Game. The left and right candidates were bloodily fighting each other, with the campaign turning from discussions and visions of future policy into searching for scandals to end each other's political careers. This unconventional approach to the election naturally attracted many young supporters. Admittedly, Ahn Chul-soo lacked the personal charisma of making provocative speeches, which is a typical characteristic of traditional politicians, and his moderate reformist ideology was incompatible in the macro-context of the economic downturn. However, based on his almost spotless political resume compared with those of Yoon and Lee, Ahn Chul-soo made himself decisive in the game between the left and right: his endorsement could mean one side's victory.

Ahn Chul-soo's rise was not an accident, but an inevitable result of the development of South Korean politics after the Democratization movement from the June 29 Declaration. The declaration acknowledged Korean citizen’s direct voting rights, extended the protection of human rights, granted the freedom of press, and allowed an opposition faction. The compromise of Korean president Roh Tae-woo was forced by the June Struggle, a powerful and dynamic democracy movement to protest the Korean Government’s ignorance of the results of the election.

Refusing to repeat the same mistake of the Gwangju Uprising, an uprising against martial law violently suppressed by the Korean army, Roh Tae-woo chose to assuage popular resentment by promising democratization. Although the Democratization movement set Korea on the right path to democratization, compromising caused issues in the long run. Parliamentary politics in modern South Korea is generally the embodiment of representative democracy. Typically, parties represent the interests of the people, and the people's demands are carried out as best they can by elected presidents. Nevertheless, the parliamentary politics of South Korea are a compromise between movement politics and the authoritarian government.

The compromise mechanism was established so quickly that the movement groups, namely present leftists, could not establish a unified policy free from interference from the rightists and the former authoritarian government. The Merge of Three Parties planned by Roh Tae-woo, the thirteenth South Korean President, is the best example. Roh Tae-woo tried to boost his approval ratings by allying himself with leftest movement politician Kim Young-sam, who then chose to compromise with the dictatorship in order to gain power as quickly as possible.

The consequence of this incident was that the core programs of movement politicians became constrained by governmental frameworks, which means these politicians can’t effectively represent the working-class people they represent. Over time, the Democratic Party, born out of the compromise of movement politicians, became increasingly alienated from the hopes of its supporters. Plutocrats are free to expand their interests with the right-wing government's "small government" policy and low taxes while the left lacks the legislative ability to counteract these goals. The so-called liberal economic policies of the right will also be influenced and alienated by these vested interests and ultimately serve them. Therefore, parliamentary politics in South Korea has become a politics of naked benefits: partisanship and corruption are constant. The ordinary people lack a channel to express their actual political demands. From this point of view, the rise of Ahn Chul-Soo is not an independent event but the beginning of a likely trend of future South Korean elections.

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