South Korea’s president was impeached. North Korea is increasingly threatening.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this election. The next leader will fill an unprecedented power vacuum and oversee major reforms, possibly including constitutional revision to curtail the president’s powers.
Because of the impeachment, the timing of the election is unusual. But some familiar patterns are also emerging. Here are five trends to watch.
1) The Korean public remains highly divided
The final round of polls shows the progressive Democratic Party’s Moon Jae-in leading with about 40 percent support. A notable recent shift is the narrowing gap between conservative Hong Joon-pyo and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, in Hong’s favor. The other two candidates trail with single-digit support.
Voters appear less committed to candidates than they were in the 2012 presidential election. More than one-quarter of voters said they might switch allegiance to another candidate.
But Moon has led polls since Park’s scandal in fall 2016 tarnished and splintered the conservative camp. Ahn has struggled to retain support from conservative voters, who seem to be consolidating around Hong — the candidate South Koreans have labeled “Hong-Trump” for his outspoken rhetoric.
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As a result, approval trends before the May 2-9 polling blackout point to a more traditional race between progressive and conservative candidates, with voters divided along generational and ideological lines (see figure).
Generational divides will probably remain the main cleavage. But Moon enjoys the highest approval ratings among all age groups except voters 60 and older — Hong’s conservative base.
More than candidates’ ideological differences, young voters seem focused on who is offering pragmatic reforms to address their socioeconomic grievances and looming national security concerns. And the conservative camp has yet to overcome Park’s scandal.
2) Expect high voter turnout
The 76 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential election reversed a declining trend, and high early voting rates suggest the final numbers this week may be higher still. Turnout in the 2016 legislative elections — 58 percent — was also the highest since 2000.
High turnout should favor the progressive candidates. They have reached out to younger voters who led the “candlelight revolution,” railed against socioeconomic marginalization and helped maintain Moon’s lead.
Voter turnout among young people is usually lower than among older cohorts, but surveys indicate that more young voters intend to vote this time. Social media helped mobilize them for the 20 straight weekends of demonstrations against Park. People can now post photos online indicating for whom they voted — and this may influence the vote.
3) Economic and political reforms have dominated the election campaign
Campaigning officially began just three weeks ago with a TV debate focused on domestic concerns about corruption, youth employment and income inequality. The subsequent five debates seemed to affect candidates’ support levels to an unprecedented degree, as seen by Ahn’s declining support levels.
The top two debate issues were youth employment and security. With economic growth at about 2 percent since 2013, unemployment among the 25-to-29 age group last year soared to more than 8 percent, the highest since 1999.
Park’s scandal and the wage gap between small and medium enterprises and Korea’s conglomerates made reform a priority for all candidates. Record poor air quality and the election’s spring timing also made fine dust a shared concern — all candidates were eager to show they will take environmental concerns seriously.
For the first time, LGBTQ rights were raised in the debates after anti-gay hazing surfaced in the Korean military. Moon’s opposition to homosexuality sparked outrage among some on the left. Sim Sang-jeung, the only supporter of same-sex marriage, clearly outperformed her rivals in those debates. But the “Sim Wave” is unlikely to carry her to the presidency.
Moon has centered his economic policy agenda on social spending, chaebol (business conglomerate) reform, and wealth redistribution. His conservative rival Hong Joon-pyo also memorably pledged to wash the country free of corruption with a (Samsung) washing machine.
4) Security and foreign policy concerns are growing
Late-stage attention to national security and foreign policy signal reactions to U.S., Chinese and Japanese statements and actions. The candidates increasingly share concerns about Korean sovereignty. Feeling that Korea is a shrimp among whales has deep roots in the peninsula’s history.
China’s intensified retaliation in March over THAAD — a missile defense system that most Koreans don’t even want — appeared to unite the candidates against China’s bullying. And the Xi-Trump summit left many Koreans wondering why Trump declared that “Korea actually used to be part of China.” Hong attacked this as a distortion of history and invasion of Korean sovereignty.
Trump’s idea that Korea pay for THAAD reinforced worries that security threats to Korea “can even come from its closest ally.” All the candidates also favor revisiting the deal Park reached with Japan over the comfort women issue in 2015.
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Growing focus on security has benefited Hong, drawing supporters away from Ahn. But it also has bolstered Moon, who pledges to be “a president who can speak his mind to the U.S., China, Japan, and even North Korea.” In a Washington Post interview last week, Moon even implied that the U.S. rush to deploy THAAD was interfering with Korea’s democratic election.
5) Watch for last-minute realignments or alliances
On May 2, a dozen lawmakers from the conservative splinter Bareun Party defected to pledge support for Hong Joon-pyo. They were responding to calls for a “single candidate” on the right and Ahn’s last-minute attempts to build alliances.
Whether in Korea or the United States, relying too much on polls is risky. Polls failed to predict the 2016 National Assembly election, which resulted in a fragmented legislature. And, despite high predicted turnout, response rates to preelection polls are lower than in 2012. Voter sentiments have been fluctuating a lot.
Voters may want a break from the past decade of conservative rule, and Park Geun-hye’s impeachment remains a tough hurdle for the conservatives to overcome. Yet we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of the “anyone but Moon” vote and centrist swing voters.
Whoever wins on Tuesday will have a tough job
Korea’s new president will begin governing the very next day and will have to address difficult policy decisions that have been postponed since the impeachment. And no party currently has a majority in the National Assembly. Korea’s next president is thus unlikely to live up to voters’ expectations.
As the final candlelight demonstrations showed just 10 days ahead of the elections, many voters seek sweeping reforms to correct perceived injustices at home, including the Sewol ferry tragedy, the power of Korea’s chaebol, income inequity and discrimination.
The new president will also confront challenges related to North Korea and China, as well as uncertainties about Washington’s policies toward the region.
Celeste Arrington is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
See-Won Byun is a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington University.