South Korea turns left

Apologies – I was too preoccupied with the French presidential contest to get around to previewing South Korea’s presidential election, held yesterday. But the result was far from unexpected. Moon Jae-in, from the centre-left Democratic Party, was elected comfortably with 41.1% of the vote against four opponents, very much in line with what the opinion polls had said.

Turnout was reported to be about 75%, similar to 2012. Moon is to be sworn in today as the new president.

The election was held seven months early due to the impeachment and removal of the previous president, Park Geun-hye, following a corruption scandal. Park was from the centre-right (her father was the country’s dictator in the 1960s and ’70s, whom Moon was once jailed for protesting against), but although hers was the first successful impeachment, corruption in South Korea seems bipartisan. Both sides have been plagued by such scandals over several decades.

So it’s not surprising that the candidate of Park’s party, Hong Jun-pyo, could only manage 24.0%, just ahead of centrist Ahn Cheol-soo with 21.4%. It may just be coincidence, but in the six months since the election of Donald Trump, the right has had a pretty poor run worldwide.

And with much of the world focused on the Korean peninsula recently, this is an important result. When it comes to North Korea, Moon is by inclination a peacemaker; his aim will be to defuse tension and increase peaceful contact – an objective that may well cut across Washington’s policy. (Or maybe not; who really knows?) Although corruption and the economy were said to be more important to voters, relations with the North remain a deeply divisive issue.

Still, it’s worth noting that South Korea’s elections are not necessarily a good reflection of the popular will. While France holds a runoff election and the United States has a single-round system with a randomising factor in the shape of the electoral college, South Korea is simple first-past-the-post: there is one national ballot and he (or she) with the most votes wins.

More often than not, the vote is spread among three serious candidates and a few also-rans. As a result, only once since the restoration of democracy in 1987 has a president actually been elected with majority support. Here are the figures (from Adam Carr’s archive):

Left Centre Right
2017 41.1% 21.4% 24.0%
2012 48.0% 51.6%
2007 26.2% 15.1% 48.7%
2002 48.9% 46.6%
1997 40.3% 19.2% 38.7%
1992 33.8% 16.3% 42.0%
1987 27.0% 28.0% 36.6%


Sometimes the system disadvantages one side, sometimes the other: with two-round or preferential voting the right probably would have won in 1997 but lost in 1987. Either way, however, it deprives the president of the legitimacy that a democratic mandate would confer.

This year, it’s unlikely that it made a difference. Ahn, the centrist, is a former leading figure in the Democratic Party, and it’s fair to assume that a large proportion of his voters would have supported Moon in a runoff. But with dangerous times for South Korea, its new leader will need all the backing he can get.



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