South Korea’s Populist Turn | East Asia Forum

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

South Koreans will go to the polls to elect a new president this Wednesday, March 9. With a campaign characterized by backbiting and populist rhetoric, the contest has been dubbed the ‘unlikely election‘.

Leading the race is Yoon Suk-yeol of the main conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) and a former attorney general under the current administration of Moon Jae-in. Yoon jumped ship after clashing with the administration over prosecutorial reform, and his reputation as a tough investigator who does not bow to political pressure propelled him to the top of many pre-election polls.

Yoon is closely followed by progressive ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung, a former mayor and governor of Gyeonggi province. Starting out as a factory worker who later injured his arm in a work accident before turning to politics, Lee is promoting a rags-to-riches story as part of his promise to roll out an income universal base and to fight against wealth inequalities.

Behind the two leaders was Ahn Cheol-soo, a renowned former doctor and software entrepreneur from the centrist opposition People’s Party. This positioned Ahn to play the role of spoiler or kingmaker.

Six days before the election, Ahn took of of the race and lent his support to Yoon. With Sim Sang-jung of the small left-wing opposition Justice Party unable to gain traction, the four-way contest has now been reduced to two.

The issues of most concern to voters are the intimate relationships that breed corruption between political elites and the chaebol (the family conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy) and socio-economic and living standards issues such as housing affordability and jobs. These issues gained traction in the context of the 2016-2017 candlelight protests, which saw millions take to the streets to demand the ousting of then-president Park Geun-hye, who ultimately been dismissed.

While Moon Jae-in promised hope and change, many in South Korea feel that too little has been done. It’s unclear whether Yoon or Lee can do much better in areas where voters demand the most progress. Neither of the two leading candidates has experience as a National Assembly legislator – a first in South Korea’s democratic history. Yoon and Lee have each routed nominees from their own parties with more experience and pedigree, aided by the scandals that have plagued their opponents.

Both are also plagued by scandals and dramas of their own.

Lee’s wife is accused of using a government employee as a personal assistant and embezzling public funds, while Lee himself faces scrutiny for a suspicious land development deal and rumors of links to organized crime.

Yoon was forced to apologize for his wife’s fraudulent resume and deny accusations of ties to a shaman cultist and a predilection for anal acupuncture.

The negative campaigning style that characterized the election left significant numbers of swing voters and younger voters still undecided ahead of the ballot.

In our first feature story this week, Myungji Yang explains that Yoon’s tactics for winning the presidency focus on winning over young male voters through a “dividing ‘us versus them’ strategy.” This involves demonizing gender equality as the cause of South Korea’s economic woes. Yoon promised to “remove the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, among other anti-feminist signals.”

Yoon’s approach is to tap into young men’s frustrations over social mobility and the continued widening of wealth inequality, themes portrayed so vividly on South Korea’s hit global TV show squid game. Soaring housing and rental prices in Seoul and an unemployment rate of nearly a quarter of South Koreans aged 15 to 29 highlight the problems. It’s an approach that seems dishonest given that South Korea is a male-dominated society that ranks 108 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report.

Lee’s primary commitment to a universal basic income has also been called populist. For its proponents, it’s the kind of radical fix needed to close the growing wealth gap. But his critics say he seeks to buy votes with free money and the economics of his politics don’t match up.

Amid populist promises and bashing, Yoon and Lee have failed to describe how they will approach chaebol reform. Neither candidate has addressed the issue in their campaign manifestos or shown any signs in campaign debates that they will put serious pressure on chaebol the elite.

The populist turn in South Korean politics also comes at a time when South Korea’s geopolitical position is becoming more difficult than ever.

As Peter K Lee explains in our second track this week, “South Korea’s next president will face a difficult conundrum between North Korea and China.” South Korean leaders left and right have long asserted that denuclearizing North Korea is the top priority for the region and world peace… Yet North Korea is increasingly secondary to the United States , behind the negotiations with China and now behind Russia. also following its war of aggression against Ukraine.

How the next Blue House leader decides to balance Moon’s continued diplomatic ties with North Korea with policy toward China and Russia “will inform South Korea’s stance on the Indo-Pacific. , wartime operational control, trilateral cooperation with Japan, participation in groupings like the Quad, and prospects for deeper cooperation with partners like Australia”.

If a turn to populism is the way of the future in South Korean politics, the country will again have to build on its strong culture of civic participation and protest, which gave rise to the candlelight protests of 2016- 17, to preserve the quality of its democracy.

The EAF Editorial Board is located at the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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