Author: Jong Eun Lee, American University
On 9 March 2022, South Korea held a closely contested presidential election after months of volatile, acrimonious campaigns. Conservative People Power Party (PPP) candidate Yoon Suk-yeol was announced the winner with 48.56 per cent of the vote. Ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung was just 0.73 per cent behind, the closest margin ever in South Korean history.
In December 2016, former president Park Geun-hye was impeached after the nationwide protests against her political scandals. In the subsequent presidential election, the ruling party suffered a defeat, politically distanced itself from Park and renamed itself the PPP. The newly elected president from the opposition Democratic Party, Moon Jae-in, pledged to end political corruption.
The past five years were tumultuous for South Korean politics. Seoul witnessed summits between the heads of states of two Koreas and the United States. The Democratic Party achieved landslide victories in local and legislative elections. The government was initially praised for its management of COVID-19, dubbed ‘K-Quarantine’, but later faced domestic criticism for the increasing socioeconomic costs of its quarantine measures.
These experiences contributed to the competitive, dynamic presidential election. While supporters of the ruling party viewed the election as an opportunity to continue the ‘candlelight revolution’, the opposition sought to hold accountable the ‘populist, hypocritical’ government and restore ‘fairness and common sense’ in politics. President-elect Yoon is a former prosecutor general who investigated corruption allegations against the Moon administration. Lee is former governor of Gyeonggi province with a reputation as an economic populist. Together, they embodied the contrasting political aspirations of a divided South Korean electorate.
While voter turnout was roughly the same as in 2017 — about 77 per cent — all major candidates faced high disapproval ratings throughout the campaign. Despite concerns that the high unfavorability ratings of two major candidates could depress the turnout, South Korean voters continue to be engaged in political participation.
Due to the legacy of the past military dictatorships, politics have traditionally been divided along regions — conservative parties dominant in the southeast Kyongsang province, while the more progressive parties dominant in the southwest Joella province. While the two major parties won in their respective regional stronghold, Yoon’s frequent campaign visits to Jeolla province and his pledge to honour the region’s contribution to past democratisation have achieved small inroads into the democratic stronghold. Lee also increased democratic vote share in his hometown province of Kyongsang, creating cracks in the regional political alignment.
Nationwide, older South Koreans in their 60s and above tended to vote for Yoon, while middle-aged voters in their 40s and 50s tended to vote for Lee Jae-myung. Young voters in their 20s and 30s acted as a swing electorate. Many young, first-time voters view the ruling Democratic Party as the new establishment tarnished by corruption and were more receptive to some of the PPP’s policy proposals. This was particularly the case for men under 30 — nearly three in five voted for Yoon.
Young male voters have also espoused more hardline views toward North Korea and China and perceived the Moon administration’s foreign policy as overly conciliatory. They have also criticised the ruling Democratic Party for a ‘lack of fairness’ in employment, housing and gender-related policies. Young female voters, on the other hand, have maintained more liberal views toward foreign and social policies and, despite some aversion toward personal allegations surrounding Lee, ultimately voted for him.
But even among female voters in their 20s, Yoon achieved a higher percentage (33.8 per cent) than previous conservative candidates, including Park, the first woman elected president. Such results pose a warning for the Democratic Party that its traditional advantage among young voters has significantly weakened.
South Korea remains a largely two-party political system closely divided between the PPP and the Democratic Party. Minor candidates such as the Justice Party’s Sim Sang-jung and the People Party’s Ahn Cheol-soo barely registered. In fact, Ahn gave up days before the election and endorsed Yoon. While the PPP won the presidency, the Democratic Party holds a large majority in the National Assembly thanks to its victory in the previous legislative election.
South Korea will face a divided government where the two major parties struggle to achieve bipartisan cooperation. While resuming many conservative economic and security policies, the incoming Yoon administration, which take office on 10 May, could prove successful in overcoming political divides by distinguishing itself from past conservative governments administrations. To expand support in traditionally Democratic areas and demographics, Yoon may embrace a ‘new conservative’ agenda that includes policies toward balanced regional development and ‘fair opportunities’ for the youth in employment and housing.
At the same time, Yoon could struggle to bridge the cultural differences between the PPP’s older, more traditional base and the new younger supporters. As South Korea’s two major political parties vie for support among young swing voters, both will face challenges in addressing different perceptions of ‘fairness’ between younger male and female voters to avoid alienating one group at the expense of the other.
Jong Eun Lee is a PhD Candidate and Adjunct Instructor at the School of International Service, American University.