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     Apr 3, 2012

The South: Busy at the polls
By Aidan Foster-Carter

PART 1: The North: It's one big party

The first quarter of 2012 is almost over. Where did it go, so fast? And for those parts of the world where the calendar is marked by four distinct seasons - which doesn't apply to much of Asia, but very much includes the Korean Peninsula - spring has begun to arrive. Welcome warmth and relief, after the rigors of chilly winter: an especially harsh one in North Korea.

April can bring fresh breezes, and - switching now to metaphor - for both Koreas this looks to be the case this time in the realm of politics. It may be largely coincidence, but both north and south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) this coming month is set to bring very important political events, developments, and quite probably


changes. Asia Times Online readers may well be aware of some of these already, but it might be helpful to consider them all together.

The first article in this report looked at North Korea's busy April. The middle of this month is due to see not only that much-hyped and much-criticized satellite launch, but also two key meetings: the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) on April 13, plus a far more important conference of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) whose precise date has yet to be specified.

Frankly, the SPA is a puppet show. South Korea used to be like that too in the bad old days, with pretend parliaments of yes-men endorsing whatever the military dictators cooked up.

Not any more. For the past quarter century the Republic of Korea (ROK) National Assembly has been the real thing, or even the other extreme. Indeed, the two parliaments make a remarkable contrast.

In Pyongyang, for just one day each year, North Korea's hand-picked marionettes take their places in orderly rows in the Mansudae Assembly Hall, all facing the same way. They hardly open their mouths, except to cheer the Leader. And they meekly vote "yes" when told to.

Their Southern equivalents do a proper job, meeting throughout the year. But also sometimes an improper one. They debate fiercely, which is as it should be - except it can get physical.

Google "Korea Parliament", and see what images come up. Have these pugilists no shame? Each new batch always promises to put the fists away and do better than the last. Not so far.

Still, at least these battlers are the genuine people's representatives: chosen by popular vote in secret ballots. Unlike up North, where spooks in smoke-filled rooms hand-pick the bright and loyal, stick them on a single list - a choice? are you kidding? - and then make people dress up in the best clothes and troop out and vote for them (100%, natch) every five years. They don't even always bother to stage this farce on time. The last SPA "election", in March 2009, was seven months late - probably because of Kim Jong-il's stroke in August 2008.

Contrast this with South Korea. Since democracy was restored in 1987, every election has been held on schedule. The dates are fixed: unlike some countries, eg Japan or the United Kingdom, no one can call an election at will. The South has separate polls for the executive and legislative branches, each on a different cycle. The president is elected every five years, and can only serve a single term. He or she is kept in check by the National Assembly, elected every four years.

The point of this, after two coups and 26 years of military rule, was to stop future presidents dominating the legislature - let alone any funny business. That has worked, but the system is cumbersome. There's long been talk of shifting to a pattern more like the US: a combined election every four years, and allowing the president a second term (without which, whatever their merits, they all become lame ducks in their final year: look at Lee Myung-bak now).

Now would have been a good time to make the switch, since both elections fall this year. But bad blood between the main parties prevented that, so they'll be separate as usual. First up is the parliamentary poll, on April 11 - two days before the North's SPA meets, as it happens. This will be watched all the more keenly as a pointer to December 19, when the voters will turn out again: this time, to pick the person who'll lead them all the way through 2018.

Numbers are another North-South difference. The SPA is huge, with 687 members. That's more than the House of Commons in my own country, even though the United Kingdom's 60 million population is over twice as numerous as North Korea's 24 million. South Korea has 50 million people, but they are represented by a mere 299 lawmakers. This seems rather few. Both the North and South are unicameral: there's no upper house, unlike in many other countries.

The 299 are chosen via a hybrid system. Most (245) represent single-member geographical constituencies, elected on a first-past-the-post basis. Voters also tick a second box, which determines the remaining 54 in proportion to each party's share of the nationwide vote.

Last time around, in 2007-08, the assembly elections came a few months after rather than before the presidential poll. In the latter, after a decade of liberal rule, the conservative Lee won by a landslide. For parliament the rightward swing was less marked, but it sufficed to gain Lee's Grand National Party (GNP) 153 seats and hence, just, overall control of the assembly - a boon which few previous presidents had enjoyed. The liberal opposition, at that stage called the United Democratic Party (UDP), won barely half as many seats (81).

So slim a majority might look vulnerable to by-elections, which indeed the GNP has mostly lost. Yet four years on, the GNP - recently rebranded as Saenuri, meaning new frontier - has 165 seats as of March 29. Whereas the opposition, also if less drastically renamed - it's now the Democratic United Party (DUP) - is still stuck on 80. Minor parties make up the rest.

How come? In 2008, the right was divided. Lee's camp deselected a whole bunch of MPs loyal to his rival Park Geun-hye, whom he defeated for the GNP presidential nomination. That wasn't smart. Politics in South Korea are pretty personalized, so most of those given the chop ran as independents anyway and held their seats. These are now back in the fold. Hence the ruling party now has more MPs than in 2008, and it still controls the assembly.

But probably not for much longer. Only 16 seats have to change hands for Saenuri to lose its outright majority. This looks almost certain, as for various reasons - a slowing economy, growing inequality, cronyism, North Korea - South Koreans are now disillusioned with Lee.

That includes his own party, which in desperation has turned to his old nemesis Park Geun-hye. The daughter of Park Chung-hee, the dictator (1961-1979) who turned South Korea into today's industrial powerhouse, Park is popular with the public; so her foes had little option. Come December, she will almost certainly be Saenuri's candidate for the Blue House.

Hence the boot is on the other foot, and now it is Lee's acolytes who are being deselected. They are crying foul, yet most have gallantly stayed loyal to Saenuri, to Park's relief. Just one deselected Saenuri MP has joined a newly formed rival right-wing group, the Korea Vision Party (K Party), which thus looks set to be stillborn. This will be a two-horse race.

Factional sour grapes aside, the K Party was founded on fears that in its determination to distance itself from Lee and all his works, Saenuri is also ditching conservatism. A new policy platform unveiled on January 30 looks a clear shift to the left, though this may just be tactical populism. Job creation and social welfare are the priorities, with talk of fair wealth distribution and preventing abuse of power by the chaebol (big conglomerates). Lee by contrast, himself a chaebol man by background, is a free-marketeer who had favored tax cuts for the wealthy as a supposed means to encourage more investment.

On North Korea, the new line is to help Pyongyang join the international community rather than trenchantly demand its opening and denuclearization. Oddly, the North hardly features as an election issue, despite its two savage attacks in 2010 and its imminent rocket launch.

That said, a sudden burst of red-baiting suggests Saenuri's conversion to centrist moderation is only skin-deep. In the opposite camp the DUP has made an electoral pact with a smaller more left-wing group, the Unified Progressive Party (UPP). The ROK left is always calling the right corrupt, so it was embarrassing when UPP leader Lee Jung-hee admitted that her supporters had rigged a telephone ballot to secure her candidacy by lying about their ages (there was an age quota in the ballot). Such are the pitfalls of using new technologies.

Amazingly, Lee did not resign. Sections of the Seoul press speculate that she is under orders from the NL group, a pro-North faction once quite influential in the 1980s radical student movement. Not a shred of evidence has been produced, but a Saenuri spokeswoman warned on the radio: "What will happen to our future if the nation is led by a pro-North group? We need to be aware."

A bit more subtly, Park Geun-hye on March 27 described the upcoming elections as "a choice between ideological struggle and the livelihood of the people".

Incidentally - or maybe not - all three politicians mentioned in the preceding paragraph are female. The three main parties are currently all led by women - the third being the DUP's Han Myeong-sook. This is a welcome sea-change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul.

A similar breath of fresh air is seen in Saenuri's list of candidates for the 54 seats selected by proportional representation. Top of the list is a female nuclear scientist. Next is a disabled activist. A North Korean defector ranks fourth. Park Geun-hye comes 11th, below a female table tennis champion (9th), while a Philippine-born naturalized Korean (also female) places 17th. The variety here, including political novices, is a refreshing contrast to President Lee's rightly criticized habit of picking personnel mostly from a narrow circle of his close cronies.

The DUP list, it must be said, is duller and more predictable: lots of worthy non-governmental organization activists. As for the UPP - no alliance here - a number of their names are rumored to be NL types. Be that as it may, the UPP looks unlikely to pick up more than a handful of PR seats.

The DUP has other problems too, including its own equivalent of Saenuri's Lee-Park rivalry. Here the fissure pits old guard followers of the late Kim Dae-jung, mainly from Cholla in the southwest, against supporters of his successor as president, the also late Roh Moo-hyun. The latter currently have the upper hand, to the chagrin of the former - some of whom have set up a splinter party, the Authentic Democrats, which might split the liberal vote in Cholla.

The official campaign period - though in truth it's been going on for months - kicked off on March 29, with 924 candidates competing for 245 seats. As of now the race looks too close to call. Most polls have Saenuri and the DUP neck and neck in the low 20% range, with the lead varying. The DUP was ahead a month ago, but Saenuri has gained ground since.

Almost half the electorate is undecided, so on the day it's the floaters who'll swing it - and the turnout. Regionally the same applies to Seoul and the surrounding Kyonggi province, who have no fixed loyalties - unlike the southwest (solidly DUP) or the southeast (mainly Saenuri, but Roh Moo-hyun was from there so for once the DUP may make a few inroads).

Pundits suggest that both main parties may end up with about 130 seats. This will make life difficult for President Lee in his final few months, with not only an enlarged DUP trying to thwart and frustrate him but Park Geun-hye perhaps similarly minded: vengeance is sweet.

Almost certainly Saenuri will thus need help to get any legislation passed. They may be able to count on the Liberty Forward Party (LFP), a conservative regional grouping with support in the central Chungchong region, which will probably retain most of its current 14 seats.

But that may not be quite enough. Expect blandishments to the more middle-of-the-road end of the DUP, and perhaps some blatantly opportunist floor-crossing as everyone jockeys to position themselves for the race that really counts: December's presidential election, a whole other ball game and one quite impossible to call at this stage. May the best woman win!

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. He has visited South Korea some 25 times in the past 30 years, starting in 1982.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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