Gaming the system backfires, again

The results that I reported last Thursday from South Korea’s legislative election are indeed final, and voting figures are now available as well. They enable us to assess how fair the result was, and in particular how successful the opposition was in its trickery regarding the new electoral system.

Last week’s preview explains the background. Basically, the government introduced a measure to make some of the proportional seats compensatory rather than parallel: that is, instead of just tacking on a proportional election to the constituency seats, the former would counterbalance some of the unfairness in the latter.

That meant that there were now three categories of seats. By far the largest was the constituency seats, 253 of them, elected by first-past-the-post. That was always going to again favor the two major parties, who in 2016 had won 215 constituency seats between them.

Then there were 17 seats allocated directly in proportion (on a D’Hondt system) to the parties’ vote, and finally a further 30 seats allocated so as to try to achieve proportionality overall, including the constituency seats.

That was the idea. But the opposition United Future Party (centre-right) hit on a scheme to preserve its advantage as a major party. Instead of contesting the proportional seats itself, it established a satellite party, called the Future Korea Party, to do so, confining itself to the constituency seats. That meant that when it came to calculating proportionality, the Future Korea Party had no constituency seats to offset against, so it could claim its full share of proportional seats.

That would have left the incumbent Democratic Party (centre-left) at a significant disadvantage. So it followed suit, establishing its own satellite, the Together Citizens’ Party.

So what happened? The Democratic Party did very well in the single-member seats, winning 49.9% of the constituency vote and 163 seats. The United Future Party won 41.4% and 84 seats. The left-wing Justice Party won a single seat, as did five independents.

As you would expect, a lot more parties contested the proportional seats, and with most of them being on the centre or left, they took votes away more from the centre-left. As a result the centre-right led narrowly, with 33.8% to 33.4%. So of the 17 straight proportional seats it won seven, the centre-left six, and others four.

And if the system had worked as intended, that’s where the two major parties would have finished up: 169 centre-left and 91 centre-right. The compensatory seats would all have gone to the smaller parties, since they were massively under-represented. If the whole election had been proportional, for example, the Justice Party would have won 30 seats for its 9.7% of the vote.

But because the major parties – or rather their satellites – hadn’t technically won any constituency seats at all, the compensatory seats just went much the same way as the parallel ones. The centre-right got 12, centre-left 11 and three smaller parties just seven between them.

So although the centre-right’s shenanigans “worked”, in the sense of netting itself an extra 12 seats,* it also gave its opponents another 11. And that mattered a lot, because it brought the centre-left up to 180, a three-fifths majority, which is the number needed to fast-track legislative procedures, enabling the government to break a filibuster.

Yet again, a party that attempts to game the electoral system finds that it doesn’t work out exactly as expected.

 

* Because I can’t tell (being unable to read Korean) exactly how the compensatory seats are calculated, I can’t be sure that the centre-right wouldn’t have won one or two of them anyway, even without the subterfuge. But the centre-left certainly wouldn’t have, which is the key point.

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