The health crisis has made it a fairly lean season for elections, but South Korea – which has so far been one of the most successful countries in dealing with Covid-19 – is going to the polls today to elect a new legislature, or National Assembly.
South Korea has a full separation of powers, with an executive president, directly elected for a non-renewable five-year term, and a legislature elected separately every four years. But a lot has happened since the last legislative election, in April 2016.
At the time, the centre-right’s Park Geun-hye was president. Her centre-right party lost its legislative majority, winning just 33.5% of the vote and 122 of the 300 seats. The new legislature duly impeached Park for corruption and she was removed from office in March 2017, almost a year before the expiry of her term. (She was subsequently sent to prison, as was her predecessor.)
An early presidential election then produced a comfortable victory for Moon Jae-in, from the centre-left Democratic Party, at his second attempt. He’s had a fairly exciting three years, playing an improbable double act with Donald Trump in diplomacy with North Korea – which nonetheless seems to have done a good job in averting the threat of war.
Moon’s approval ratings, which were indifferent for most of last year, have been on the improve lately, presumably due to his response to the coronavirus. But his prospects of significant achievements in his remaining two years in office (and therefore on his party’s chances in 2022) will be affected by how sympathetic a legislature he gets.
South Korea has a mixed electoral system: 253 seats are elected by first-past-the-post in single-member constituencies, and the remainder by proportional representation (on a largest-remainder system). Prior to this year, the proportional seats were simply additional, not offsetting the disproportionality of the rest.
So in 2016, centre-right and centre-left, with 58.3% of the vote between them, won more than 80% of the seats. In fact, although the centre-left was 8.7% behind, it finished with one more seat, 123 against 122. The centrist People’s Party (now called the Party for People’s Livelihoods), with 25.8%, outvoted the Democratic Party but only won 38 seats. The leftish Justice Party won 8.2% and six seats, and there are 11 independents.
President Moon, however, prevailed upon the legislature last December to approve a reform to the system, making it more like a mixed-member proportional system (as used in New Zealand). Now, 30 of the 47 proportional seats will be allocated as compensatory seats to parties that are under-represented in the constituency seats.
Unfortunately, the centre-right opposition (now called the United Future Party) devised a scheme to get around this. It has established a satellite party, the Future Korea Party, which will only contest the proportional seats while its parent only contests the constituencies: that way, it will get the full benefit of its votes in both, with no offset.
The Democratic Party was (understandably) outraged, but felt obliged to follow suit so as not to be disadvantaged. So it too now has a satellite, the Together Citizens’ Party. I don’t know if either of the major parties in New Zealand has ever thought of trying this trick, but let’s hope it doesn’t catch on.
Opinion polls show the Democratic Party with a big lead in the constituency seats, so it looks as if the president is likely to have a friendly legislature – which should be proof against suffering the same fate as his predecessor.