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From Onion Memes to Election Polls: South Korea’s 2024 National Assembly Election

What is happening?

On April 10, 2024, South Koreans headed to the polls to vote in the country’s parliamentary elections, with all 300 seats up for grabs. The leading parties in the race included the Democratic Party Korea (DPK), which has held a majority in the National Assembly since the last elections, and the conservative People Power Party (PPP), whose candidate Yoon Suk Yeol assumed the presidential office in 2022. However, due to public dissatisfaction with South Korea’s current political establishment, smaller parties gained a stronger footing in the legislature. 

This year’s election saw a voter turnout of 67 percent, which is the highest in 32 years. The main opposition party, the DPK, secured 174 seats, while the ruling PPP captured 109 seats. The Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), led by former justice minister Cho Kuk, gained 12 seats. From the very start of the race, this year’s parliamentary elections were seen as critical in setting the tone for the remainder of Yoon’s presidency. President Yoon still has three years left of his presidential term, and the PPP’s failure to win the majority of the National Assembly’s 300 seats will likely create significant obstacles to pushing forward his domestic and foreign policy agendas.

 

What is the broader picture?

Traditionally, South Korea’s “imperial presidency” has meant that the President arguably has disproportionate power over agenda-setting and policy implementation, even when the opposition party controls the National Assembly. This system of governance has been criticized as dysfunctional and as preventing South Korea from being able to deepen and strengthen its democracy. Furthermore, South Korea’s system of governance has been characterized by low accountability and political gridlock, the source of which is its weak party system. In the past, except for the two dominant parties, the DPK and PPP, other parties that were unsuccessful in presidential elections were dissolved only to be later “reformed and rebranded under the leadership of a known figure poised for the next presidential election.” 

The two major parties have continuously dominated the political system. In 2020, South Korea established a mixed-member proportional representation system (MMPR) to ensure more excellent representation for smaller parties. However, this has shown to be unlikely to alter party representation in the National Assembly dramatically. Leaders have capitalized on loopholes in the new system, setting up smaller satellite parties that can be disbanded after elections and usually just become a part of one of the mainstream parties. As such, the Assembly will continue to be dominated by the DPK and PPP.

Similarly to a broader pattern in today’s democratic world, South Korea has been struggling with public dissatisfaction with the country’s political establishment in recent years. Since the elections of 2022, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and the ruling People Power Party have been dealing with meager approval ratings. Polls conducted in June 2023 showed that Yoon’s approval rate has dropped to 35 percent while his disapproval rating stood at 57 percent. The poll also showed the approval rating of the current ruling party, PPP, stood at just 35 percent, barely higher than that of the main opposition party, DPK, which saw an approval rating of 32 percent. Notably, the results of the polls suggested that around 49 percent of respondents were likely to vote for a majority of smaller opposition parties in the National Assembly elections in April 2024 to maintain checks and balances on the current government. 

Low trust, rising living costs, soaring prices of agricultural products, slow rate of economic recovery, unemployment, a rapidly aging society, and a lack of medical workers and caretakers were among the many driving forces behind this year’s National Assembly elections. The parliamentary elections were held against a country-wide doctor’s strike in protest of President Yoon’s reform plans, aimed at increasing annual medical school admissions by 2000 places from 2025 onwards. While some voters, wary of South Korea’s ability to provide sufficient care to its rapidly aging population, have supported the move, thousands of doctor trainees and professors have criticized the decision and argued that it not only fails to address the existing issues of poor working conditions and low pay but that it will also worsen the quality of medical care in the country. 

Adding fuel to the fire, President Yoon’s wife allegedly manipulated stock price, falsified her career credentials in a job application, and violated South Korean law by accepting gifts, specifically a luxury Dior handbag valued at more than $750. Fanning the flames yet further, President Yoon sparked internet ridicule following an unfortunate visit to a grocery store, during which his remarks about the price of South Korea’s green onions sparked country-wide criticism — rather than garnering more excellent public support, President Yoon instead managed to anger voters, who accuse him of being out of touch with the day-to-day realities of regular Koreans. As a result, many voters have been urged to vote for smaller parties whose agendas may be more representative of ordinary people’s needs.

 

Why it matters?

Since his inauguration, President Yoon has faced from the National Assembly, particularly regarding his domestic policies. This pattern will continue further due to the opposition party’s victory in the parliamentary elections. While the previous government was able to enact 61 percent of the bills put forward at the Assembly, until now, President Yoon has only been able to enact around 29 percent of all of his domestic policy bills. Also, given the relatively significant presence of the RKP, considered one of the more progressive parties, Yoon’s opposition might attempt to take advantage of the series of personal scandals to weaken his standings and his popularity further. 

However, regarding South Korea’s foreign policy, not many changes are expected to occur. Since the beginning of his term, Yoon has pushed forward foreign policy initiatives even at the cost of a domestic political backlash. As such, he will likely continue to reverse the previous government’s foreign policy and focus on strengthening South Korea’s ties with the US and Japan, taking a firmer stance on North Korea, and enhancing South Korea’s support to Ukraine and its efforts in defending democratic values around the world. While Yoon’s foreign policy course is likely to remain unchanged, it is expected that the opposition and the opposition-ruled National Assembly will increase their efforts in criticizing Yoon’s foreign policy for being impractical and potentially provocative.