Federal Response to COVID-19 Rewarded at the Polls in 2020 South Korean Parliamentary Election5 min read

            South Korea is one of the first nations to hold its elections following the outbreak of the Corona Virus.  Logistically, the government had to maneuver around obstacles caused by the virus to ensure that all 44 million eligible voters would be able to carry out their civic duties (Kim, 2020).  Separate polling areas were set up for voters with high temperatures or symptoms of COVID-19.  Many people mailed in their ballots early which helped reduce crowds at the polls.  However, even those under mandatory self-quarantine were allowed out to vote.  Self-quarantined voters had their location tracked through a government app that traces their smartphone.  The sick voters were only allowed to go to their specified polling location (Kim, 2020). 

This brings up the idea of the government protecting its citizens.  In some cultures, it seems unlikely that most people would be on board with the government so blatantly tracking people.  The cultural differences between countries certainly seems to influence how individual governments face the virus.  These are the instances where a more centralized governmental system such as Presidentialism would fare better than a system like Parliamentarism or Semi-Presidentialism.  Without a clear decision-maker at the top of the federal government, it becomes a lot more complicated when there is a need for action in a time of crisis.  However, the virus also opens up the opportunity for an authoritarian regime to seize power over a country that wants to feel safe.  The line between civil liberties and the government protecting civil liberties has become more blurred than ever.  The federal government is protecting its citizens’ right to vote by invading their personal liberties.  Another argument is that the social distancing policies are also protecting citizens from other citizens who may be sick.

With the strict safety policies in place to ensure social distancing, the ruling party, President Moon’s Democratic Party, won the elections.  The Democratic Party secured 163 of the 300 seats up for grabs, with its sister group, the Platform Party securing an additional 17 seats (Bicker, 2020).  Although 35 parties submitted candidates, the left-leaning Democratic Party’s primary competition was the more conservative United Future Party.  The United Future Party and its parliamentary partners are expected to win 103 seats.  This marks the first time in 16 years that the left-leaning party secured a majority (Bicker, 2020).

            As recently as January, the outlook was bleak for the Democratic Party in the 2020 election period.  The South Korean economy had slowed, and peace talks with North Korea halted, but the current administration’s effectiveness in handling the Corona Virus epidemic earned the Democratic Party votes.  The aggressive tracing and testing measures implemented by Moon’s government led to his party winning the largest parliament majority the country has seen since it started democratic elections in 1987 (Bicker 2020).

            These results prove true the conventional wisdom that in times of crisis, the incumbent candidate generally fares well in an election.  The success of Moon’s political affiliates was not only due to it being a time of crisis, but rather the efficient manner in which his government dealt with the situation.  Despite the crisis, South Korean citizens flocked out to vote at a clip of 66.2 percent, the highest voter turnout rate for a parliamentary election in the last 28 years (Sang-Hun, 2020).  According to Park Si-young, the head of a South Korean political survey company, the government’s response to the Corona Virus was the most decisive factor in the election results.  This is a shift from the regional loyalties and ideological differences about North Korea that generally influence these elections (Sang-Hun, 2020).

            For example, in South Korea’s 2016 parliamentary election, the governing party lost their majority due to discontent about the state of the national economy.  The discontentment among voters did not drive nearly as many people to the polls as the voter turnout was only 58 percent, 8 percent below what was seen in 2020 (Evans, 2016).  The discrepancy between the turnout totals highlights an upward trend in voter turnout in general.  The 58 percent was up over 3 percent from the 2012 election (Evans, 2016).  It also highlights that the chaotic nature of a deadly virus will drive people to care about their government.

            Knowing the influence that the disease can have from a political standpoint may turn this into an opportunity for incumbent candidates.  It seems likely that more and more political figures will implement strategies similar to those Moon implemented in Korea to not only solve the crisis, but to gain political popularity and maintain power.  It makes the issue something to be propped up or promoted rather than hidden because it must be a very public issue for it to affect voters so strongly.  If leaders put themselves at the forefront of the fight against the virus, it could pay off in a meaningful way come election time.  It is only natural to ask whether the need for strong leaders and decision-makers will lead to a reverse wave of democratization.  Will federal governments be strengthened internationally as a result of this epidemic?


Bicker. “South Korea Election: Ruling Party Wins amid Coronavirus Outbreak.” BBC News, BBC, 16 Apr. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52304781.

Evans. “South Korea Elections: President Park’s Party Loses Majority.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Apr. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36033773.

Kim. “South Korea’s Ruling Party Wins Landslide in Elections Dominated by Coronavirus.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/south-korea-is-holding-an-election-even-as-it-rebounds-from-coronavirus-pandemic/2020/04/15/1dd66f76-7b37-11ea-a311-adb1344719a9_story.html.

Sang-hun, Choe. “​In South Korea Vote, ​Virus Delivers Landslide Win to Governing Party.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/world/asia/south-korea-election.html.

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