Korea’s post-electoral political landscape


I rarely delve into politics on this blog, especially when it comes to the politics of my host country.  Tonight, however, I’ll wade into the political currents a bit in the aftermath of Wednesday’s Korean national election.  Let me first give you a short primer on the Korean political system.  The Republic of Korea, or South Korea, is a representative democracy.  The chief executive and head of state is the President, or Roh Moo-hyun.  The president is elected to a single five-year term and cannot run for re-election–a check-and-balance introduced into the Korean system to prevent autocratic leaders from holding office for life.  Chong Wa Dae, or the Blue House, is the Korean White House, or President’s home and office.  The legislative branch is governed by the unicameral National Assembly and presided over by a prime minister appointed by the president.  The current prime minister is Han Myeong-sook, a woman.  The Blue House is located in central Seoul north of Gyeongbok Palace, while the National Assembly is several miles away in Southwest Seoul on Yeoido (Island).  The Korean judical system is governed by the Korean Supreme Court, which weighs in on legislation and executive orders, much as the U.S. Supreme Court does.  Korea also has a Constitutional Court that renders opinions on constitutionality.  The court has been very influential in recent years, overturning the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Roh and ruling against the ruling party’s attempt to move the national capital out of Seoul.
 
The Uri Party ("Our Party") is the ruling party of Korea and generally considered liberal.  The Grand National Party (GNP) is the main opposition party and is generally considered conservative.  "Liberal" and "conservative" are political labels that mean different ideals in Korea than they do in the U.S.  Korea has several other political parties, including the Democratic Party (DP) and People First Party (PFP), a regional party.  The Uri Party has been the ruling party in the National Assembly since 2004.  President Roh is also an Uri Party member elected in 2002.  Until Wednesday’s national election, the Uri Party also held sway over the governerships of Korea’s 16 provinces and cities and well as local governments.  However, in the last two years the GNP has dominated the last four elections, winning big last Wednesday in gubernatorial and local elections held nationwide.  The DP also gained political ground.  Of the 16 governorships in Seoul, Daegu, Daejeon, and the provinces, GNP won 12, the DP two, an Independent one, and the Uri Party just one governorship.
 
Last Wednesday’s elections could be a harbinger of next year’s election, when the Korean people choose a new government.  The GNP appears poised to become Korea’s ruling party, although analysts have noted that the GNP also won the 2001 election and lost the presidential election the following year to Uri.  However, the results of this week’s elections were so devastating to Uri that it may lead to the break up of the party itself.  The Uri Party’s leader, Chung Dong-young, resigned yesterday, and other party leaders are considering resigning en masse.  Chung’s departure has opened the way for #2 Kim Geun-tae to assume the party leadership, while speculation is rampant that Chung and his supporters may leave the Uri Party.  If this happens, then Chung’s faction may join the DP or form a new political party (members of the Uri Party, including Chung, left the DP, or former Millennium Democratic Party, to form Uri).  The remaining core Uri members could regroup before the 2007 national elections and relaunch the party under a new name.  Korean political parties frequently morph and change names.  Former President Kim Dae-jung and President Roh will likely play influential roles in the drama unfolding at Uri, although they are constitutionally prohibited from running for another presidential term.
 
The GNP is in good shape heading into the 2007 election.  It has several candidates well-positioned to run for president, including party leader Park Geun-hye, daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, and Lee Myung-bak, the outgoing mayor of Seoul.  Lee was considered the party front-runner for his efforts to beautify Seoul, until he was accused of favors last April and when Park was slashed by an assailant.  Now, Park has commanding lead in the polls.  Park is a sentimental favorite among Koreans who admire her father, a polarizing figure praised for energizing the Korean economy and criticized for human rights abuses.  Koh Gun is yet another presidential contender.  He is a centrist figure who may break away from the GNP and form a centrist party.  All three are strong challengers to Uri’s possible presidential candidates, notably Chung Dong-young and Kim Geun-Tae.
 
At present, barring any dramatic changes in Korea’s political landscape, the most probable scenario is that Park Geun-hye will win the Korean presidency and become the country’s first female leader.  The GNP will likely win a slim majority in the National Assembly.  The Uri Party will probably splinter as members leave the party.  Most departees will join the DP, which has some political momentum.  The liberal opposition will divide itself two parties, Uri and DP, while the GNP will become the ruling party, most likely in 2007.  It remains to be seen whether the GNP can hold onto their momentum for foreseeable future.  The future depends on whether the GNP addresses Korean voter dissatisfaction and shows political restraint.  If it doesn’t, the party may lose its political momentum very quickly.
 
Sounds a bit like a Korean drama, eh?
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