After years of autocratic rule, South Korea adopted a political system in 1987 designed to prevent a return to authoritarianism. Frequent elections and term limits make it difficult for any party or individual to retain or wield power for long. The entire parliament faces election every four years, with 253 of the 300 members directly elected and the remaining 47 chosen by party representation. The president is limited to one five-year term and has no vice president. Although these rules have successfully prevented any individual from dominating the political system, they have also created a disruptive political environment with little reliability or continuity.
At the moment, the divided opposition favors the conservative Saenuri Party, which has lackluster support but a good chance of maintaining a simple parliamentary majority. This is, however, by no means guaranteed: Polling data indicates that, even among traditional supporters of the Saenuri Party or its predecessors, a fairly high percentage of voters remain undecided. The outstanding votes will be divided up among the various opposition parties, of which Minjoo and the People's Party, headed by a former professor and technology entrepreneur, are the largest. These two parties compete directly with one another for votes, a pattern in South Korean elections that has a regional character. In the country's southwest (North Cholla province, South Cholla province, and the city of Gwangju), the traditional center of opposition politics, opposition support is the strongest, and parties therefore fight over the same votes, rather than vying for potential Saenuri voters.
Amid tough economic conditions in South Korea and volatile relations in the region, this election is particularly important for South Korea. The country's economy was already beginning to reach its structural limits as it attempted to compete with a solidly entrenched but stagnating Japan and a rising China. South Korea took advantage of China's rise to boost its own economy. But now that China has slowed down, South Korea's economic exposure has led to significant economic problems. Exports to China are falling (12.2 percent in March, compared to a year earlier) at a time when there are few other consumers to pick up the slack. Moreover, a recent report by the Hyundai Research Institute indicates that each one percent decline in Chinese growth rates trims half a percent off of South Korea's GDP. Internal efforts to bolster small businesses have had little success, and traditional political ties between many of the major conglomerates and the ruling party have further stifled economic reform.
South Korea has also seen an uptick in North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, along with an increase in North Korean propaganda activities. At the same time, Japan and China are expanding their maritime and defense activities in the region. Once again, South Korea finds itself in its historic (and unenviable) geopolitical position between the two great powers, described as a minnow between two whales. Between South Korea's economic exposure to China, its contentious relationship with Japan, and its complex security relations with the United States, the country has little room to maneuver. And within South Korea, people harbor very mixed feelings about both Japan and the United States that can further complicate strategic decision-making. The recent debate over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system exemplified South Korea's security challenges, as did its reversal on intelligence sharing arrangements with the United States and Japan.
A Volatile Situation
Although the election itself may not significantly disrupt South Korea's status quo, the new parliament and the winner of next year's presidential election will face a complex and challenging environment. Like Japan, South Korea faces a major shift in demographics, with a rapidly aging population, an often overeducated and underemployed labor force, and an economy that risks falling behind in innovation. Meanwhile, the United States' role in Asia-Pacific is also shifting, and Washington expects its allies to play a more direct and active role regionally. As a result, Seoul is left to struggle with the fiscal and social costs of expanding its defense role, the potential economic costs of upsetting its trade relations with China, and the political and security costs of being seen as the regional laggard, compared to Japan, as the key U.S. ally. And with each passing day, North Korea appears closer not only to a viable nuclear-armed missile, but also to significant internal challenges of its own that could create a more volatile situation at the border.