After months of turmoil and confusion, South Korea will finally have a proper president next week. The South Korean presidential election will take place on Tuesday, 9 May, and the legal inauguration will happen the next day. At last, a legitimate leader can begin tackling the many issues of South Korea’s dangerous drift.
The impeachment of former President Park Geun-Hye means South Korea now has only an acting president. The ‘Choi-gate’ scandal which brought Park down has rolled on since October, paralysing the government for months and necessitating this special election. Hence the rushed next-day inauguration, even if there is some later public ceremony: South Korea needs a fully empowered president as soon as possible.
Thankfully, the presidential campaign has been reassuringly bland and normal. There has been no last-minute constitutional tinkering, nor efforts by Park dead-enders to sabotage this in the name of the ‘real president.’ Park’s own party has accepted her impeachment and is running a candidate. As I argued last month on The Interpreter, for all the ‘crisis’ talk about South Korea’s recent troubles, it has weathered Choi-gate about as well as any democracy could reasonably expect. This election has should produce a properly legitimated president, and things should revert to normal in short order.
With less than a week to go in the campaign, the specific challenges to each major partisan current – right, left, and centre – are increasingly clear:
The Korean right has all but collapsed. The Park-era conservative party desperately re-named itself and then factionalised over Park’s legacy. The two conservative candidacies refuse to merge, and their combined polling is under 20%. This is a partisan wipe-out worse than the post-Watergate routs of the Republicans in the US in 1974 and 1976.
This is not surprising. Park has badly discredited Korea’s traditional conservatives. Conservative voters have flirted with the centrist candidate, Ahn Chul-Soo, to block a liberal victory. But he imploded after several poor debate performances. Conservative voters now seem to be drifting all over the place. Some back to the right; some cleaving to Ahn; others staying at home. The liberal candidate and likely victor, Moon Jae-In, has even made a play for these dissatisfied conservatives by publicly denouncing homosexuality (which in turn has helped push up the far-left’s numbers as leftist voters bolted).
All in all, it's a disaster for the right, which has led to a desperation move: the primary right-wing candidate is now calling himself the ‘Donald Trump of Korea'. This suggests, along with Marine LePen’s advance to the French presidential election’s second round, that Trump is a possible model for new political entrepreneurs in democracies. Is this the route by which the post-Park South Korean right will reconstruct itself? Traditionally the right’s planks have been anti-communism and business friendliness. In practice, this has often meant McCarthyism and corruption. It is hard to see how a Trumpified right is an improvement.
Moon, now the overwhelming favorite now, will be a minority president with a final vote of around 40%. This will likely constrain him from governing too far to the left on North Korea and Japan, which is probably the greatest anxiety of foreign observers of the election. Moon has prevaricated on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense debate. He has hinted he may re-open the Kaesong Industrial Complex. He was also a major architect of the Sunshine Policy under South Korea’s last liberal president. And he has criticised the ‘comfort women’ deal between Park and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, as well as an intelligence sharing deal with Japan.
Moon’s instincts may be to push all these issues hard, but he will meet a wall of resistance, which his liberal predecessors did not. In 1998, when the Sunshine Policy was untested, it was worth a try. Today, given North Korea’s continual recalcitrance and norm-breaking – nuclearisation, missilization, criminality, blatant provocations such as the sinking of the Southern warship Cheonan in 2010 or the use of VX, a weapon of mass destruction, in an airport, and so on – Moon will have to explain why North Korea is not the frightening global menace many now see it as. Why is Kaesong, which came to be widely understood as subsidising dictatorship, suddenly no longer that? Why, if North Korea is building missiles, should South Korea not have missile defense?
Regarding Japan, Moon will likely be tougher on ‘history’ issues than Park. But here too, he will face a lot of resistance if he tries to undo the progress of the last few years. The easiest thing to do politically is attack Park’s Japan deals as conservative perfidy but leave them in place. Otherwise, his presidency will be hijacked by a return, yet again, of the Japan-Korea dispute. That was so bad a few years ago that it required direct intervention by the US president to tamp down. Moon can throw the leftist-nationalist NGOs the concession of not moving the comfort women statues in front the Japanese Seoul embassy or Busan consulate. But he likely has many other plans – chaebol reform, intelligence reform, air quality improvement, social services, North Korea – he would rather pursue than re-open the permanently stalemated stand-off with Japan.
Ahn Chul-Soo will probably lose, and he was always an unlikely candidate. A quirky celebrity businessman seeking office along the lines of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s run for the Californian governorship, Ahn briefly closed the gap with Moon as conservative voters abandoned the conservative parties. But he did not appeal deeply to them, because he markets himself as a modernising reformer. Once he stumbled in the debates, they left him, and the gap with Moon re-opened.
If Ahn goes down in defeat, the big follow-on question is whether his centrist People’s Party will survive. It has always been, more or less, a vehicle for Ahn to run for the presidency, with only scant evidence of institution-building toward a genuine or durable party.
South Korea now has a far-left, centre-left, centrist, and two centre-right parties. Yet its electoral law is (mostly) first-past-the-post. Duverger’s Law tells us that this strongly incentives bipartism, unlike the multipartism South Korea has now. After next Tuesday, the two conservative parties will likely re-merge, as is already happening, and the People’s Party, with its not-so-charismatic-after-all leader in defeat, will likely dissipate over time. This would return South to a 2.5 party system (big-tent right, big-tent left, & small far-left parties). This would be yet more blandness in Korean politics – multipartism is always more exciting and interesting – but after months of confusion, some political boringness would likely be a good thing.