[News Focus] Is multiparty system viable in Korea?

By Jo He-rim

Parties should fight on policies for multiparty system to thrive

Published : Dec 28, 2017 - 16:29
Updated : Dec 28, 2017 - 16:31

A four-day vote of confidence in the People’s Party Chairman Ahn Cheol-soo kicked off Wednesday, as he called for an all-member ballot to make a final decision on a proposed merger with the fellow minor opposition Bareun Party.

The two minor opposition parties have long struggled to gain a foothold at the National Assembly, as two major parties dominate the legislative process. As a way of reaching a breakthrough, the leaders of the center-left People‘s Party and center-right Bareun Party have proposed a merger, and while opinions are divided, the result of the all-member ballot of the People’s Party -- which is to come out Sunday -- is likely to decide the fate of the two parties.

There are mainly five political parties at the Korean National Assembly. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea, main opposition Liberty Korea Party and center-left People’s party hold negotiation bloc status, while minor center-right Bareun Party and far-left Justice Party only have parliamentary seats. (Yonhap)


Korean politics has long been dominated by two major political parties, with other smaller parties mere struggling for negotiating group status. Last year, however, a third party emerged to challenge the traditional two-party system.

The People’s Party was the surprise of the 2016 general election, winning 38 parliamentary seats in the 300-member parliament, only two months after its founding in February. Promoting centrist politics, the minor party which now has 39 lawmakers has become the swing vote at the National Assembly.

Another unexpected event occurred in the wake of a massive corruption scandal last year that led to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye. More than 30 lawmakers from the conservative then-ruling Saenuri Party -- now rebranded as the Liberty Korea Party -- bolted in January to form the minor splinter Bareun Party.

The establishment of the two new minor opposition parties resulted in four negotiating bodies in the parliament at the time, and made the presidential election in May a five-way race.

While the emergence of minor parties raised the possibility of a multiparty system here, the political environment continues to threaten their survival.

The People’s Party has so far failed to make clear its centrist identity and is currently suffering from intensifying internal feuds. Bareun Party lost its negotiating bloc status after many of its legislators returned to the Liberty Korea Party, leaving it with only 11 lawmakers.

Pundits say the parties’ survival now depends on the upcoming local election slated for June, and if they do not garner significant victories, they may suffer similar fates to previous minor parties, dissolving back to a two-party system.

Viability of multiparty system in Korea

Is a multiparty system impossible in Korean politics?

Since the last constitutional revision in 1987 -- when direct presidential elections were introduced -- politics has been a battleground between the governing party and one main opposition party. Conservatives and liberals took turns in controlling the government and other smaller parties rarely achieved negotiation bloc status.

“Elections were always a two-way race between candidates from the two biggest parties,” professor Park Sang-byoung of Inha University told The Korea Herald. “And in the past, the voters saw that their competition was not a competition of policies, but that it was mere politicking to win elections.”

For the five parties currently in the parliament -- the left-wing Justice Party also holds six seats -- Park said that voters’ aversion to the “indolent” and “unproductive” politics has exploded, leading to the dispersion of votes.

It cannot be denied that a multiparty system would be to the benefit of a democratic society as more parties would mean more chances for diverse interests to be represented. But experts say the current election system and history of Korea have created a landscape not so favorable for a stable multiparty system.

Park explained that the binary nature of Korean politics is rooted in the country‘s history.

“The country witnessed, on many occasions, how crucial it is to unite against enemies. The people had to gather power against the imperialistic Japan and the communist North,” he said.

“It was ‘us’ against ‘them,’ and such a history has led to the dichotomous single-member district and the presidential systems.”

Sohn Ho-cheol, a political science professor at Sogang University, echoed the view.

“The idea that strength is in numbers is widespread, as voters have experienced the binary structure of politics for so long -- the fear of losing if they do not gather forces,” he said. “It is a transition period. The desire for new politics with more parties to represent interests and the desire to return to old politics exist at the same time.”

Deep-rooted regionalism has also contributed to creating binary politics.

Broadly speaking, the most pronounced regional cleavage exists between the Gyeongsang provinces in the southeast and Jeolla provinces in the southwest, with the former a stronghold of conservatives and the latter of liberals.

Politicians have used the regional divide as leverage to maintain footholds at the National Assembly, electioneering in favorable regions with an eye to securing stable victories.

“The voters are not blind. It was just that they chose from the two choices they were given. If there are more choices, they would take other choices,” Chung Youn-chung, a Pai Chai University professor, said.

Recent national elections, including last year’s general election and the presidential election in May, show a change in voting trends.

The biggest hurdle pointed out by the minor parties is the single-member electorate system in which voters pick one leader for a single district.

“The current system is a winner-takes-all system which basically ignores all the rest of the votes. For example, if a politician wins with 41 percent of the votes, 59 percent of ballot papers go to the bin,” Chung explained.

The presidential system, along with the single-member district system, also makes it harder than in a cabinet government for minor parties to establish a strong foothold at the parliament, said Kim Wook, also a professor at Pai Chai University and who also heads the Korean Elections Society.

The most urgent task in fostering a sustainable multiparty system is to change the electorate system, according to experts.

They were unanimous in calling for the introduction of larger electoral constituencies with more than one representative, or a party-list proportional representation system to allow more parties to have a voice. It is an argument also being made by People’s Party Chairman Ahn Cheol-soo.

As to changing the voting culture influenced by regionalism, school education can help.

In Germany, which has come to be viewed as a beacon of a stable multiparty system, straw votes for teens are operated alongside national elections, and students are taught to cast votes for candidates that advocate their interests.

It is also crucial for small parties to show themselves as viable policymakers. The new parties, then, would not have to present unique ideological positions to gain traction, Kim said.

“In Korea, it is just simple ‘liberals versus conservatives.’ But under a working multiparty system, the ideological and political backgrounds of a political party vary from one end of the spectrum to the other.”

Chung, on the other hand, explained that it is crucial for the People’s Party to uphold its centrist politics and differentiate itself from the two major parties.

But for any party to win votes, it must compete fair and square with policies, Chung said.

“As for the People’s Party, it boasts its role as a casting voter at the National Assembly, but they are just taking sides on each different agenda item. They do not have their own policies to fight on,” she said.

“For any party to survive under the multiparty system, it should give clear policy choices for voters to choose from.”

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)

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The Korea Herald by Herald Corporation