Who is the Winner? Analysis of the 2014 South Korea Local Elections

By Andrew Kwon & Brian Kim

South Korean campaign banners in Busan, May 2014. Source: Jens-Olaf Walter's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

South Korean campaign banners in Busan, May 2014. Source: Jens-Olaf Walter’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Despite speculation that the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) would come away stronger from the June 4 local elections following a drop in confidence in the ruling Saenuri Party and President Park Geun-hye in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster, the post-election results indicate something quite different. Though it now holds nine out of the seventeen governorships, the NPAD did not achieve a ‘grand sweep.’ Though this may come as some surprise, when one considers the polling trends in the lead up to the elections, the results were an accurate reflection of what can only be described as an increasingly complicated political landscape in South Korea.

What were the projections and standing realities before the elections?

Following the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16, the previously stable approval ratings of President Park were adversely affected. To highlight, according to polling conducted by Gallup Korea, the president’s personal approval went from 61 percent to 46 percent two weeks after the disaster. The Saenuri Party fared little better with approval similarly dipping from 44 percent to 39 percent in around the same period. However, though there is a common assumption that what adversely affected the ruling party ultimately favors opposition forces, the opposite was true in this case.

Despite the drop in approval for the Saenuri Party, the primary opposition party, the NPAD, also appears to have been adversely affected by the Sewol disaster. Having experienced a gradual slide in approval since its inception in early March 2014, the NPAD approval stood at only 26 percent before dropping again to 23 percent in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster. Over the next several weeks in the lead up to the local elections, not only did the President’s approval see a recovery, both parties experienced an increase in favorability at a similar rate. However, the Saenuri Party with its higher rating baseline reached 42 percent versus the NPAD’s 28 percent on the eve of the election.

What did the results show?

Out of South Korea’s seventeen governorships, seven were contested in the June 4 elections. Of those seven, the NPAD was able to win four. Though the NPAD now controls nine provinces, when one looks at a detailed breakdown of the results, a much more complex picture emerges.

Out of 226 mayoralties, 117 were won by the Saenuri party against only 80 by the NPAD. Additionally, despite the fact Saenuri lost control of cities such as Daejeon and Sejong and was convincingly defeated in Seoul, its victory in the city of Incheon and the province of Gyeonggi, which collectively holds more than half of the population in the Seoul Greater Metropolitan Area, is seen to have adequately compensated for these losses.

In turn, the traditional heartland of the South Korean center-left, the provinces of North and South Jeolla, saw an overwhelming shift away from the NPAD towards independent candidates. As such, though it can be said that the NPAD holds the plurality of major cities and provinces, its overwhelming defeat at the district and municipal level as well as in the Seoul Greater Metropolitan Area means the election itself was tactically inconclusive and far from a victory for the NPAD

What is the likely outcome?

Given that South Korea is a unitary state, the nine NPAD governors can do very little to oppose the Saenuri-controlled national assembly, let alone the Blue House. An effective defense that blunted the impact of the Sewol disaster spared the Saenuri Party of the worst. As a result, this election can be seen as a strategic victory for the ruling Saenuri Party and President Park.

The NPAD, on the other hand, is now in an arguably weaker position than it was before the election. Not only did it fail to capitalize on the effect of the Sewol’s sinking on the incumbent camp, it also emerged from the elections with deep internal tensions. One example of this is the recent criticism by NPAD member Park Ji-won against his party leader, Dr. Ahn Cheol-Soo. Mr. Park has argued Dr. Ahn’s misplaced emphasis on Gwangju was a major contributing factor to NPAD’s defeat in several key races, especially the Seoul Greater Metropolitan Area.

Taking advantage of the relief from having avoided their worst case scenario, President Park announced the intent to push forward with her legislative agenda shortly after results were announced. However, that is not to say that caution cannot be advised for both the President and the ruling party. Despite its effective defense, the Saenuri Party was completely shut out in the provinces of North and South Chungcheong and Gangwon as well as the city of Daejeon, all four of which had previously voted for Park Geun-Hye in the 2012 presidential elections. An additional upset was the defeat to an independent candidate in Busan, a traditional conservative stronghold. All things considered, there remains a substantial sector of the electorate that is yet to be convinced by the president.

Mr. Andrew Kwon is a Visiting Thawley Scholar from the Lowy Institute with the Korea Chair at CSIS. Mr. Brian Kim is a research intern with the Korea Chair.

 

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