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[Robert J. Fouser] Rebuilding the Democratic Party of Korea

June 17, 2022 - 05:31 By Robert J. Fouser
After barely winning the presidency in March this year, the People Power Party won a landslide victory over the Democratic Party of Korea in the June 1 local elections. The People Power Party won 12 of the 17 metropolitan mayor and provincial governor seats, including Seoul, which marked a gain of 10 local chief executives. The People Power Party won substantial victories on ballot elections, giving it control of a majority of metropolitan and provincial legislatures and local district, city, and county legislatures.

The elections leave the Democratic Party mainly in control of the National Assembly. The party kept control of local governments in its traditional strongholds in the southwest Honam region and Jeju Province. It lost the mayorship in Incheon, but held a narrow majority in the legislature there. In Gyeonggi Province, it won the governorship and split the legislature evenly with the People Power Party.

Two important by-elections for National Assembly seats were held on the same day. Former Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung won a seat in Incheon, while Ahn Cheol-soo, who withdrew from the presidential race to endorse Yoon Suk-yeol, won a landslide victory for a seat in Gyeonggi Province. These victories will keep both men on the political stage and could help future presidential ambitions.

The closeness of the presidential election on March 9 left the result open to interpretation. President Yoon’s victory marked a change in the incumbent party, but the number of voters for the Democratic Party and the left-wing Justice Party was greater than the number of votes for Yoon. The result could have easily gone in the other direction.

The local elections, however, stand as a sharp rejection of the Democratic Party. In the race for Seoul mayor, for example, Oh Se-hoon won by a 20-point landslide. People Power Party candidates won 17 of the 25 district mayorships, while the Democratic Party won only eight; in 2018, the Democratic Party won 24 district mayorships. Seoul, traditionally one of the most liberal places in the country, has shifted to conservative.

What happened to the Democratic Party and where does it go from here? Since South Korea’s democratization in 1987, the Democratic Party and its predecessors have won three presidential elections. Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Moon Jae-in have all had a base of loyal and motivated supporters thanks to strong regional support bases and generational appeal. Kim Dae-jung lost twice and Moon Jae-in once before eventually winning. Their charismatic connection with supporters was the key to their political success. Candidates such as Lee Jae-myung, who lacked such a connection, have had difficulty building and maintaining support.

Another charismatic leader might appear to save the Democratic Party, but in today’s cynical reality, it could be a long wait. Independent-leaning voters who determine the outcomes of elections want results -- not charisma. The same holds true for older voters who live on fixed incomes and younger voters worried about the future.

To overcome its addiction to charisma, the Democratic Party needs to develop a clearer governing philosophy. Major foreign news sources, such as the New York Times, refer to the party as “liberal,” but it often fails to take a clear stance on issues important to liberals. For example, the party won a strong majority in the National Assembly in April 2020, but failed to pass an anti-discrimination bill for President Moon Jae-in to sign. At the local level, the party is often indistinguishable from its conservative counterparts.

At the same time, the Democratic Party has developed a reputation for pursuing idealistic policies detached from reality. At the local level, efforts to promote urban regeneration as a counterweight to redevelopment pressures have mostly failed because residents feel little positive change in the neighborhood.

The People Power Party and its predecessors have long maintained a clear pro-business, anti-North Korean stance that forms the core of its governing philosophy. Voters know what they will get from the People Power Party and turn to it in times of economic and geopolitical instability. Voters have less certainty with the Democratic Party, which leaves it dependent on charismatic candidates. They use these candidates mainly as vehicles for punishing unpopular conservative leaders.

The People Power Party fell to a low point in 2017 and 2018 after landslide defeats in presidential and local elections, but recovered to win the same two elections three months apart in 2022. It did so because voters trusted it on economic and security policy. The Democratic Party will recover as the political pendulum swings, but its recovery would be more durable with a clear and consistent governing philosophy.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.