[The Korea Herald] Can Korea break the two-party mold?

Numerous smaller political parties have come and gone in Korea, which in recent years has tended toward what is essentially a two-party system. Ahead of the 2012 National Assembly elections, a number of minor players, including the then new Korea Vision Party, hoped to make their mark on the political landscape. The results of the election, however, mostly reinforced the status quo, with the conservative Saenuri Party retaining its majority, and the liberal Democratic Party taking most of the remaining seats. The remaining handful went to the left-wing Unified Progressive Party and Progressive Justice Party and a small number of independents.  — John.

By John Power

Korea, like so many democracies, broadly fits the definition of a two-party system made up of liberal and conservative camps.

Yet its two-party mold remains young and fragile compared to countries such as the U.S., where power has passed between the same two parties without interruption for more than 150 years. Korean parties rarely last more than a few years before a name change, merger or outright dissolution, while the National Assembly typically accommodates a number of small parties aside from the big two.

In the country’s first free presidential election in 1987, not two, but three major parties vied for Korean politics’ top job. The conservative Democratic Justice Party’s Roh Tae-woo clinched victory, benefiting from a spilt in the liberal vote between the Reunification Democratic Party’s Kim Young-sam and Party for Peace and Democracy’s Kim Dae-jung. Kim Jong-pil, the founder of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the precursor to the National Intelligence Service, came a distant fourth on the conservative opposition New Democratic Republican Party ticket. For the next election in 1992, Kim Young-sam merged his party with Roh’s ruling bloc, creating a clearer two-party spilt and ultimately winning Kim the Blue House. Parliamentary elections, since 2000 in particular, have tended toward reinforcing the presence of two major parties and a number of bit players.

Park Se-il speaks at a press conference for the recently formed Korea Vision Party last month. Park’s party hopes to shake up the two-party status quo. (Yonhap News)

“The first reason is the political parties are largely based on regionalism, Jeolla regionalism and Honam regionalism,” Kyung Hee University politics professor Yun Seong-yi told Voice.

“So unless the regionalism breaks down, there is not much chance to have a multi-party system in Korea. We also have a sharp competition or clash between the liberals and the conservatives nowadays. People want to have two distinctive ideological parties.”

The election system, which sees 246 out of 299 seats chosen in single seat constituencies favoring bigger parties, is also a factor.

“Generally speaking, single-member constituencies tend to bring about two-party systems,” noted Hong Deuk-pyo, a political science professor at Incheon’s Inha University.

The upcoming April 11 general election, as a clash between the recently renamed Saenuri Party and Democratic United Party, would appear to continue the two-party mold. What could be a game-changer, however, is the pre-election alliance of the DUP with the minor Unified Progressive Party. With the two big parties expected to take 130-145 seats each, the far-left UPP could become kingmaker in the next Assembly, even if it only wins the roughly15 seats predicted by opinion polls.

“After the election the UPP and DUP will cooperate to pass laws, but case by case,” said Hong. “It is obvious that the UPP and DUP are going to keep their pace by checking the Saenuri Party in the National Assembly along with searching for ways for cooperation to win the upcoming presidential election.”

Another challenger to the two-party status quo is the recently formed center-right Korea Vision Party, headed by former Saenuri Party member and Hansun Foundation chief Park Se-il.

“We were established in order to break that chain (of power moving between two major parties),” said Park’s deputy chief of staff Lee Sang-baek. “Both parties have been based in certain regions, as you know. For instance, the Saenuri Party is very strong in the Gyeongsang area whereas DUP is very comfortable and strong in Jeolla. But instead of regionalism, KVP hopes to create values that we believe in. Instead of a region, we want to be Korea-based party based on our ideology.”

Lee, whose party is fielding 27 single-seat constituency and eight proportional representation candidates, accepts that is “very difficult to break that barrier” and make an impact as a third party. But he sees the party’s electoral bid as “a good and meaningful experiment.”

Nor is the party concerned about the possibility of splitting the ― in this case conservative ― vote and handing power to the other side, the curse of so many third-party bids in two-party set-ups.

“I don’t think we are splitting the conservative vote,” said Lee. “Basically we are creating a new definition of conservative in this society. That why the KVP is trying to come into play, come in to provide more reasonable and reform-minded conservative policies.”

Yang Seung-ham, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that Koreans’ lack of a unifying ideology leaves the door open to third or fourth parties.

“At present, Korean political positions are diversified according to region, income, age and ideology. The major parties are not enough to embrace the complicated differences. And 40 to 50 percent of Korean voters do not identify themselves with any political party due to political apathy and indifference. Therefore, there is always room for a third or fourth party,” he said.

But much depends on the presence of a major figure to rally around, said Yang. Korean politics has long been personality-driven: Park Geun-hye maintains considerable allure and influence despite her reputation for reticence on policy issues, while former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun each founded the parties that carried them to power and continue to be revered in liberal circles.

“Unlike the 1987 election, a third party may not present their own candidate this time because they don’t have a prominent figure to compete with the two major party candidates,” said Yang. “Only in the case that professor Ahn Cheol-soo runs for the presidency, then there will be more than two major figures. Or a person with the support of professor Ahn might become a third major figure in the upcoming presidential election.”

Yun attributes the penchant of Korea’s “2.5-party system” for personality politics in part to the tendency of parties to distinguish themselves by region rather than ideology, making it “much easier to base (them) on their political leaders and personalities.”

This, argues Hong, restricts voter choice, raising the need for a third, “moderate” party to act as a broker between the two “polarized” major parties.

As Gregory Henderson mentioned, politics of vortex have been one of the distinct characteristics of Korean politics since 1948,” said Hong. “Political parties have served as political machines for the prominent political elites in their striving for the presidential job. … Grouping around powerful figures is one of the negative factors that restricts voters’ options, but their choice affects party alignment.”

The emergence of a full-blown multi-party system, while increasing voter choice, would make coalition governments more of a norm, potentially increasing political instability. Their perceived instability has made the Korean public wary of such arrangements, according to Yang.

“Political coalitions are unstable in nature. It is particularly so in Korea, because dialogue, discussion, persuasion, negotiation, cooperation and tolerance are the concepts to be more developed in Korean politics. A coalition is more like a marriage of convenience for political purposes,” he said.

This makes the entrenchment, rather than weakening, of the two-party system more likely in the future.

“I think Korea will move toward the two-party system in the future as Korean democracy matures gradually,” said Yang. “At the moment the Korean political parties are not based on policy orientation but are catch-all parties. The political parties are the verge of the democratization process.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

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