GP Insights # 338, 18 April 2020
With 300 seats in the national assembly and 35 competing political parties, South Korea held its 21st legislative elections on 15 April amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Elections were conducted in 14,000 polling stations with adequate precautionary measures like temperature checks, sanitizers, instructions to use face masks and plastic gloves.
The election led to the landslide victory of the left-leaning Democratic Party, led by President Moon Jae-in, for the first time in 16 years. South Korea has never postponed its elections; even in 1952, the elections were held in the middle of the war.
The voter turnout in this election was 66.2 per cent, the highest since the 1992 Parliamentary elections. The Democratic Party won 163 seats, and its sister party, the Platform Party, got 17 seats giving the government a total of 180 seats in the Parliament. The opposition conservative party, the United Future Party, has won 103 seats.
What is the background?
During the years and event until January 2020, the prospect of Democratic Party winning was not high. The ongoing trade war and dispute over forced labour issue between South Korea and Japan since 2019, has caused the South Korean economy to a slowdown. Also, externally, Moon Jae-in's attempts to hold talks or mediate between the US and North Korea were not looking good. South Korea also saw a series of domestic political scandals in the past year. The above was the situation on the eve of 2020.
However, the approval ratings of Moon Jae-in changed drastically after his response to the outbreak in South Korea. South Korea's success in aggressive tracing and testing methods was put to effective use by the Democratic Party in its electoral campaigns.
The popular leaders of the United Future Party like former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn and former parliamentary floor leader Na Kyungwon could not be re-elected. A popular elect has been a high-profile North Korean defector, Thae Young-Ho. The opposition's criticisms of the ruling party have failed cut ice with the people.
The opposition seems to have failed to rebrand itself and position it better post the impeachment of Park Geun-Hye.
What does it mean?
The holding of elections in South Korea is a success to democracy. While others would have postponed, the ruling party, the opposition and the people went ahead to organize the elections as scheduled. And people took part in big numbers. This shows the success of democracy as a process under threat.
It also shows the success of democratic institutions. The preventive measures to ensure that 60,000 people under quarantine and COVID-19 patients could cast their votes in separate voting centres indicate that the government did not take the pandemic lightly. From being the country with the second-highest number of cases, reporting up to 900 cases a day, to reducing the positive cases to less than 30 a day and conducting a planned election with a high turnout is an incredible feat.
The 2020 elections stand out, mainly because South Korea is one of the first countries to hold elections amid the peak of the pandemic. Strict measures for safety and social distancing were displayed during the voting, highlighting the planning, organizing ability, social responsibility and maturity of the society.
When there is a debate about whether authoritarian regimes are better placed to fight an emergency such as the pandemic, South Korea's case tells a different story about how democracies can fight and win.