South Korea’s left-leaning governing party won a landslide in parliamentary elections results on Thursday showed, boosted by President Moon Jae-in’s successes in containing the coronavirus.
Moon’s Democratic party and its allies took 180 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, while the opposition United Future Party (UFP) won 103, according to the National Election Commission. South Korea’s voting system combines direct and proportional votes.
Turnout was 66.2 percent, higher than any parliamentary elections since 1992.
“In line with the strict command the people gave us we will put top priority on overcoming the national crisis of the coronavirus and economic declines,” former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, who led the governing party’s campaign, said in a televised speech.
Just a few months ago scandals over power abuse and sluggish economic growth were undermining the president, with critics calling his dovish approach towards North Korea – despite Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear and ballistic missile test moratoriums – unrealistic.
But the South’s relatively quick and effective handling of the epidemic boosted Moon’s approval ratings before the elections, which were seen largely as a referendum on his performance.
His so-called “coronavirus diplomacy” – such as recent publicity on his bilateral phone calls with at least 20 state leaders regarding epidemic response – boosted Koreans’ confidence in his administration, said Minseon Ku, a politics scholar at Ohio State University in the United States.
Ku added that the leader has been successfully framing the pandemic as an “opportunity for South Korea to restructure its economy – capitalising on industries like AI and biopharma” and this “coupled with South Korea’s global recognition” for its handling of the outbreak sat well with the voters.
South Korea was among the first countries to hold a national election during the pandemic, with citizens still being asked to maintain social distancing, wear protective masks, clean their hands with sanitiser and don plastic gloves.
At each of the 14,000 polling stations, voters had their temperature checked before they were allowed to enter. Those found to have fevers cast their ballots in separate booths that were disinfected after each user.
The absolute majority should help Moon press ahead with his reform agenda in his last couple of years in office.
“It should give his administration greater momentum,” said Andrew Yeo, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America.
Meanwhile, UFP heavyweights former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and ex-parliamentary floor leader Na Kyung-won failed to be re-elected.
The conservative party had “failed to rebrand” itself after the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, which “limited the boundary of support to older generations and core support regions”, Ji Yeon Hong, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told AFP news agency.
Foreign policy questions
The UFP, however, performed strongly in Daegu, the city at the heart of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province. The Democrats, meanwhile, won more than 80 percent of the seats in Seoul.
While the pandemic has drawn public attention away from the opposition’s criticisms, it would be “dangerous” if Moon interprets the election as “vindicating foreign policies that aren’t working”, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Seoul’s engagement of Pyongyang has been met with diplomatic insults and missile tests. Placating China has yielded little benefit,” he said.
“Talking tough on Japan has not advanced South Korean interests. And progressives want to accelerate military command reforms and resist cost-sharing pressures in Seoul’s alliance with Washington.”