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[Lee Byung-jong] The disappearing incumbency premium

July 8, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

Across the globe, existing political power is being challenged and toppled. Sitting presidents, prime ministers and ruling parties are being badly beaten. Just last week, the Conservative Party in the UK lost its power for the first time in 14 years. A week earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron’s party faced a similar fate. Ruling parties in India and South Africa lost their majorities in parliamentary elections for the first time in decades. And let’s not forget South Korea’s governing party, which suffered a humiliating loss in the April National Assembly vote.

In the US, former President Trump, who himself failed to get reelected, is poised to defeat the current US President Biden in the November vote after Biden performed terribly in the recent TV debate.

All of these election upsets beg the question: Where did the incumbency premium go? The longstanding political truth was thought to be that incumbent political leaders and ruling parties have the upper hand over their opponents. From 1936 to 2012, for example, 11 out of 14 incumbent presidents in the US were reelected. In South Korea, at least until recently, the ruling parties were able to maintain power for at least two presidencies before it changed hands.

But no more. According to Michael Smerconish, a commentator for CNN, incumbents used to have a 70 percent chance of reelection in the US, but now that figure dropped to 30 percent. There are no clear numbers for other countries, but at least in democratic countries, the downward spiral of incumbent powers seems clear.

In the past, voters tended to support the candidates they elected previously, possibly due to political inertia and the preference towards the status quo. Incumbents also possessed the ability to woo public opinion through such measures as economic stimulus.

Democratic political systems often allow incumbents to avoid bruising primary challenges that often divide opposition parties. By skipping or shortening primaries, incumbents usually had a united party behind them.

Yet those advantages are vanishing rapidly in today’s hostile political environment marred by cutthroat and ugly election campaigns. Even prior to elections, incumbents are constantly exposed to relentless media scrutiny, particularly by pervasive and intrusive social media. It is quite common for politicians to be demonized by malicious media coverage. Extreme polarization by hyper-partisan media has resulted in people’s profound distrust of politicians and a deep anti-politics bias.

Under the circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult for incumbents to win the support of crucial swing voters who often decide election results. These middle-ground voters used to be moderates who could be wooed with reasoning and election pledges. But they have now become perpetually dissatisfied and disgruntled citizens who hate politicians. According to Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the US think tank New America, 26 percent of American voters now hate both the Republican and Democratic Party, up from 6 percent in 1994. Today, these disgruntled voters tend to be young or working-class people. Their distrust of existing politicians undermines the incumbency premium, often leading to the election of new faces.

Nowhere is that tendency stronger than in South Korea where public distrust of politics and hatred for incumbent politicians is at its peak. In the April National Assembly elections, for example, South Korean voters elected 131 new faces for the 300-member parliament, a whopping 44 percent of the total.

The anti-incumbent sentiment has recently strengthened because of growing economic woes. In both developed and developing countries, skyrocketing prices, surging debts and widening inequalities lead voters to defect from existing political power en masse. Those recent economic problems have various causes. These include the pandemic and the resulting disruption in manufacturing and the global supply chain as well as the Ukraine War and the ensuing price hikes of commodities. But in the court of public opinion, the brunt of the blame usually goes to incumbent politicians and they are accused of mismanaging their economies. This year’s elections in particular show those patterns. From South Korea to the UK and France and now to the US, the ruling parties’ struggles are largely attributed to high prices and economic anxieties.

In advanced countries, those frustrations are usually expressed through elections. But in less developed or autocratic countries, public discontent is shown in a more radical way -- through bloody protests or military coups. In Kenya, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and a slew of developing nations, angry protesters took to the streets in recent months, fighting riot police with high casualties. In Bolivia, a military general tried to raid the presidential palace in an unsuccessful coup attempt.

Increasingly, sitting on the helm of power is feeling like sitting on thin ice.

Lee Byung-jong

Lee Byung-jong is a former Seoul correspondent for Newsweek, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a professor of international relations at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.