Ahead of South Korean election, conservatives prepare for comeback
In the staid world of South Korean politics, a 36-year-old entrepreneur with no public service experience is a very unconventional choice to lead a big party, yet that’s what the conservative opposition People Power Party has chosen as chef at his convention earlier this month. Lee Jun-seok entered the race as an underdog, but beat four established rivals, including two veteran lawmakers, and became the youngest leader of a mainstream political party. in the history of South Korean democracy.
Lee takes the lead of the PPP at a pivotal moment as the party prepares for the presidential election in March 2022. Outgoing President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Progressive Party have faced a political backlash in recent months, mostly from young South Korean voters between the ages of 20 and 30. Much of their discontent is fueled by soaring house prices and an economic playing field that appears to be against them. Apartment prices in Seoul have climbed 60% since Moon took office in 2017, one of the fastest rates in the world. And almost a quarter of South Korean youth in the labor force are unemployed or underemployed, compared to the overall rate of 13.5%.
Moon and his fellow Democrats are also still grappling with the fallout from a big insider trading scandal which went public in March, in which 10 Korea Land and Housing Corporation officials are suspected of using inside information to profit from government housing programs. The incident sparked an investigation by the country’s anti-corruption commission into illegal land speculation, which has so far involved 12 lawmakers from the ruling party. A recent Gallup Korea Poll put Moon’s approval rating at 38%, down from 71% in May 2020, while the PPP approval rating soared to 30%, its highest since 2016.
Yet scandals and economic hardship only partially explain the anti-moon rebellion, which was disproportionately waged by young men. Indeed, this demographic turned away en masse from Democrats in local by-elections in Seoul and Busan in April, handing over the mayors of the country’s largest and second-largest cities to the conservatives, respectively. Getting out of the polls in Seoul showed that an overwhelming majority of men in their 20s supported the PPP candidate, even as women in the same age group narrowly voted Democrats.
Why the gender gap? A special brand of anti-feminist grievance policy has gained momentum in South Korea, where patriarchal attitudes are deeply rooted. The country has the the biggest gender pay gap among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s glass ceiling index ranks it the worst rich country to be a working woman. While South Korean women have spoken out in recent years against sexual harassment and discrimination, some men have interpreted it as a threat, rallying against a perceived “radical feminist” agenda that seeks to disadvantage them.
There are still more than eight months to go until election day, but the ruling Democratic Party has its work cut out for it in trying to win back the support of South Korean youth.
The PPP’s selection of Lee as party leader appears intended to appeal to this demographic. Following the April by-elections, he wrote in an editorial that the Democratic Party failed by going “deep into feminism while underestimating the voting power of men in their twenties and thirties,” and also pledged to eliminate gender quotas in the PPP. But Lee’s attempts to tap into aggrieved male sentiment could be a double-edged sword, as the party could end up alienating female voters.
Ahead of this month’s convention, Lee also sought to showcase his attraction to new blood, promising to transform the PPP “into a young party of popular power that the younger generation will recognize as unlike the party it is. ‘they once knew “. This is not the first time that South Korean conservatives have sought a name change in the wake of the corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in 2017 and his imprisonment. In December, the interim leader of the PPP issued a formal apology for the transgressions of Park and another former Tory president, Lee Myung-bak, who is also serving jail time for corruption.
Lee himself is not eligible to run for the country’s top office next year, as South Korea’s constitution requires presidential aspirants to be at least 40 years old on election day. Instead, the party is currently focusing its hopes on Yoon Seok-youl, a former chief prosecutor who served under Moon but fell out of favor after launching investigations into senior administration officials. Yoon tops recent opinion polls and is expected to announce his presidential campaign next week, although he has yet to confirm which party he will join. If he joined the PPP, his image as a tough and independent corruption fighter would greatly strengthen the party as it seeks to put its Park-era scandals behind him.
On the Democratic side, Moon is constitutionally limited to one term. Key ruling party candidates who have announced or are likely to announce offers include Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung and two former prime ministers who served under Moon, Chung Se-kyun and Lee Nak -yon. All tried to reach young voters by offering measures such as vouchers for young high school graduates or rent subsidies.
Yet, given the deep inequality that permeates South Korean society and the Moon administration’s broken promises to address it, it’s unclear how much resonance these gestures will resonate with. There are still more than eight months until election day, but the Democratic Party has its work cut out for it in trying to win back the support of South Korean youth.
Elliot Waldman is the editor of World Politics Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ElliotWaldman.