South Korea, ditching international norms during the COVID-19 pandemic, has held legislative elections to seat their 300 member National Assembly. Extensive safety measures were put in place to combat the spread of the virus, and have been internationally hailed as a mold for running elections during a viral crisis (McCurry, 2020). Although the main focus of the election has shifted to the government’s response to the outbreak, the election is still set to take place with a backdrop of political scandal, new election laws, and a major socio-economic divide between the young and elderly.
South Korean voters set records for early voting turnout, and exit polls suggest a turnout rate of over 66% for regular voting, the highest in the country since 1992 (Associated Press, 2020). Longer than normal lines began snaking around polling places on the morning of April 8th, as voters observed the one meter social distancing guidelines. Polling officials tested each voter’s temperature as they entered, and mandated they wash their hands and put on gloves before entering booths. Voters who registered a fever were escorted to special booths that were sanitized after each vote. Further, quarantined citizens with no symptoms of the virus were allowed to vote between 5:20 and 7:00 PM, after voting had closed to the general public. The government tracked these individuals’ routes to polling places via their smartphones in order to store the data in case of an outbreak (McCurry, 2020).
South Korea’s response to the outbreak has been internationally regarded as a success. The mass testing and quarantining methods ordered by President Moon Jae-in have quelled the spread of COVID-19 in a country that at one point had the second highest infection rate in the world, only behind the virus’s origin country of China (Kalinowski, 2020).
The response has no doubt boosted the president’s party, the Democratic Party of Korea, or DPK. In a recent poll, 60% of respondents approved of the government’s handling of the pandemic (McCurry, 2020). Such a boost may spring the DPK into election victory allowing them to maintain majority control of the government.
Indeed, the boost may have been necessary for a win, as growing ire over the DPK’s handling of the economy may have shifted favor back to the conservative Liberty Party of Korea, or LPK (Kalinowski, 2020). In March of 2017, Park Geun-hye, The conservative president and daughter of South Korea’s long time dictator, was removed from office by a South Korean court. The move came after months of protest over evidence that Park had accepted bribes from Samsung and other large South Korean conglomerates known as Chaebols. Park’s removal left the door open for the DPK and now-president Moon Jae-in to take power (Sang-Hun, 2017). Moon initially promised a more fair and just society for South Koreans, but the wealth gap between the young and the elderly has only continued to widen under his tenure, leaving Moon’s supporters to question their support for him (McBride, 2020).
In a recent survey, ¾ of youth said they no longer believe hard work is a direct ticket to success (McBride, 2020). Their response highlights the divide between classes widely referred to as dirt-spoons and gold-spoons. For years the South Korean economy has been dominated by large conglomerates known as Chaebols. These Chaebols were often controlled by a single family, and would regularly practice exclusive cooperation with a younger family member’s business, in order to maintain success through the family’s lineage. This practice, along with the slowing export based economy due to increased competition from China and slowing globalization, have left those at the bottom, or the so-called dirt-spoons, with little opportunity for social mobility (The Economist, 2020). The 2019 Oscar-winning film Parasite serves as an artistic representation of the clearly angry dirt-spoon class.
However, this anger wasn’t enough for voters to ditch the DPK. Early voting exit polls suggest a Democratic victory between the DPK and their satellite party (The Associated Press, 2020). The idea of a satellite party in South Korea is new to this election. The necessity for such subsidiaries arose after a late 2019 bill that gave favorable treatment to minor parties. South Korea’s National Assembly uses a mixed system of 300 seats divided into 253 first-past-the-post seats and 47 proportional representation seats, which remains unchanged by the bill. The rules for gaining the 47 PR seats, however, has been adjusted to favor minor parties. The system now uses the Largest Remainder Method, in which voters vote for a party, and each party divides their vote total by the number of votes required for a seat (usually total number of votes divided by number of available seats). This produces an integer with a remainder. The integer decides the initial number of seats for each party, and the remaining seats are given to the parties with the largest remainder (hence the name) (Wikipedia, 2020). This way, parties that receive slightly fewer than the required number of votes for a seat will have a good chance at getting one during the remainder runoff.
The results of South Korea’s election will be incredibly consequential for the future of the country, and due to their relationship and proximity with the rogue North Korean State, it will likely affect the future of the globe. While Moon and the DPK argue for measured cooperation with the North, the LPK believes in a more defiant approach to the Kim Regime (Kalinowski, 2020).
Moon’s adept handling of the pandemic, including implementing safe and effective voting protocols, has paved the way for a potential DPK victory. Though significant class tensions remain between the dirt and gold-spoons, if the DPK wins, the election may signal a revitalization of Moon’s plans to bring about a just and fair South Korean society. Additionally, new election rules will likely change the landscape of South Korea’s National Assembly by giving minor parties more influence. With new circumstances, new rules, and new leaders,South Korea seems primed for change.
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Kalinowski, Thomas. “South Korea’s Election: Beyond Coronavirus.” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, April 10, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/south-koreas-election-beyond-coronavirus/.
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