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Global Politics Explainer
Elections in South Korea: Six Takeaways

  Arya Prasad

South Korea's election results indicate that President Yoon Suk Yeol will face significant challenges from the opposition in the parliament for the remainder of his three-year tenure. 

The April elections in South Korea for the National Assembly resulted in a significant victory for the main opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP). While the ruling People Power Party (PPP) received 108 of the 300 seats, the Democratic Party secured 175 seats. With the conservatives being able to defend the 100-seat threshold, the liberal party's winning margin is not as great as the "super majority" of 200 seats. Another party - Rebuilding Korea, led by the disgraced former minister of justice Cho Kuk, has also remarkably gained 12 seats, strengthening the opposition's lead. The National Assembly elections, held halfway through a president's tenure, function as a referendum on the President. 

The following are significant takeaways from the elections.

1. Challenges for the Government
The election results indicate that President Yoon Suk Yeol will face significant challenges from the opposition bloc in the national parliament for the remainder of his three-year tenure. Months of low approval ratings for President Yoon have impacted his promises to carry out significant policy reforms, including cutting taxes and increasing family support. 

Nevertheless, analysts anticipate that, given the DP's majority in the assembly, there may be impasses in state administration, policy legislation, and budgetary matters where the party's positions diverge. With expected opposition from the Democratic Party to his administration of domestic issues, Yoon is predicted to have to contend with the possibility of becoming a "lame duck" leader. 

2. More focus on foreign policy
Experts expect the Yoon government to prioritise foreign policy above domestic policy in light of the above internal politics. He is also likely to continue with his policies of trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan and confront North Korea. With the election results, differing opinions emerge regarding foreign policy. While some experts believe that the opposition's victory would not affect foreign policy because these decisions do not need assembly approval, others still need to be convinced. 

Drawing on instances of protests to the US-made THAAD missile deployment in 2016 and the 2015 Comfort Women agreement with Japan, they believe that the legislature possesses significant capacity to obstruct the current policy trend. Although executives are responsible for carrying out strategic and security objectives, the opposition's voice will considerably impact President Yoon's projected expansion of significant decisions about institutionalising the Camp David summit, strengthening ties with China, and balancing North Korea. 

3. The rise of the Rebuilding Korea Party
The growth of the Rebuilding Korea Party under the leadership of Cho Kuk is quite significant for the PPP and President Yoon. Despite having formed only one month before the election, the party could still secure 12 seats under proportional representation, in contrast to the exit poll's prediction of 15 seats. Aiming to overthrow President Yoon before his term is finished, Cho's party, which holds the third majority, is committed to criticising his prosecutorial dictatorship. Cho, a law professor at Seoul National University and a close associate of former President Moon Jae-in, is facing serious charges, including falsifying academic documents for his daughter. Cho's win shows how dissatisfied voters are with the ruling party, and the PPP needs to consider internal structural reform seriously. 

4. Regional Divisions Withing
From the vote patterns, it is evident that there is a regional division in Korean politics. The Democratic Party held the majority in the capital region and the neighbouring provinces of Gyeonggi and Incheon, securing 102 out of 122 seats. Additionally, they successfully flipped several seats held by established conservative figures, including former Land Minister Won Hee-ryong in the Incheon constituency. The opposition party reiterated its position in the region by claiming a unilateral victory in all 28 seats in the provinces of Gwangju, North Jeolla, and South Jeolla. Daejeon, the country's centre for research and technology, likewise sided with the liberals. Hwang Jung-ain Daejeon, a recent arrival in the opposition, defeated Lee Sang-min, who had defected to the conservative party. 

Out of 254 constituencies, the People Power Party won 90, and its satellite party, People Future, won 18 seats. The North and South Gyeongsang Provinces, Busan, Daegu, and Ulsan are the traditional stronghold constituencies of the ruling party, and these areas accounted for the majority of its victories. Smaller parties, like the centre-right New Reform Party and the New Future Party, won three seats and three constituencies, respectively. However, the Green Justice party, which held six seats in the preceding parliament, could not win any seats this time, which led to leader Sim Sang-jung's resignation from politics. 

5. Public Dissatisfaction and the defeat of the People Power Party 
Despite a record-breaking 67 per cent voting turnout, the ruling party's defeat indicates the public's dissatisfaction with the Yoon administration. Han Dong-hoon, the PPP's acting leader, steps down from his role and accepts responsibility for the loss. Conversely, in light of the liberal party's strong stance, Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the opposition party, emerges as a front-runner for the 2027 presidential election. With 56 women elected this year and 35 of them winning constituency contests—a record for South Korea—the representation of women in the parliament is essentially unchanged from the previous elections. 

6. Challenges ahead for President Yoon 
In the final three years of his presidency, President Yoon will have to collaborate extensively with the opposition to address South Korea's immediate concerns. South Korea's future depends on addressing issues like the doctor's strike, declining birth rates, and economic difficulties. Both the opposition and the ruling party play a crucial role in the country's policy. 

In contrast to earlier times when the Democratic Party did little more than watch the medical strike and demographic changes unfold, voters now expect that they will take the initiative and collaborate with the current administration for the betterment of the future.

About the author

Arya Prasad is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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