Campaigning for the April 13 general election is in full swing and, as usual, some negative aspects of Korean elections are rearing their ugly heads, with regionalism standing out.
The recent flip-flop at the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea over whether to promise the relocation of the National Assembly to Sejong City in South Chungcheong Province shows clearly that political parties still regard fanning regional sentiment as an easy way to get votes.
In the face of mounting criticism of a typical populist platform, the Minjoo Party stepped back from the proposal it had hoped would boost the election chances of its candidates in Chungcheong provinces surrounding Sejong City.
The situation was reminiscent of the presidential election in 2002, when a previous iteration of the party’s candidate Roh Moo-hyun had promised to build a new administrative capital in Chungcheong to lure voters in the region.
Indeed, support from the region was a decisive factor in Roh’s close win by a margin of 3.2 percentage points over Lee Hoi-chang. The consequences are the current disastrous situation we see: The geographical distance between the central government ministries that have moved to Sejong and key public offices that remain in Seoul — the Blue House, National Assembly and the judiciary — is causing immeasurable inefficiency in state affairs.
Judging from ongoing campaigning, both ruling and opposition political parties have not learned a lesson from the past.
The most disturbing scenes come from the Minjoo Party and its offshoot People’s Party, which are fighting to win voters in the southwestern provinces, the traditional base of support for the liberal opposition.
As recent opinion polls show, it is apparent the Minjoo Party is losing significant ground to the People’s Party in the region. This does not entitle the party, however, to beseech voters in the region to unite based only on their regional background.
Minjoo Party leaders, such as Kim Chong-in, who helped Park Geun-hye win the presidential election four years ago, are even arguing that the next president should come from the southwestern region and that voters there stand at the forefront of a change in government.
The ruling Saenuri Party is not exempt from this obsession with riding regional sentiment.
As a consequence of its ruinous candidate nomination process, some of its candidates in areas considered the party’s home base, such as Daegu, face an uphill battle against former colleagues who are running as independent candidates.
Hence, the party’s members are urging voters in Daegu and other southeastern provinces to support its candidates, arguing that otherwise the party may be pushed out by a group that threatens free democracy, referring to liberal opposition backed by a rival region in the southwest.
The deep-rooted rivalry between the southeastern and southwestern provinces is largely the result of politicians’ shameless pursuit of shortsighted gains. The current campaigns reaffirm that it will be a long time before we can cure this serious, chronic illness prevalent in Korean politics.