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Time to shatter political glass ceiling?

GNP candidate for Seoul mayor Na Kyung-won waves to supporters in Seoul early this month. (Yonhap News)
GNP candidate for Seoul mayor Na Kyung-won waves to supporters in Seoul early this month. (Yonhap News)

More women take center stage as Korea braces for major elections next year

Asked to comment on his rival contender announcing policy pledges every day, Park Won-soon, who is running for Seoul mayor as candidate of the liberal opposition camp, said last Thursday it is “one thing to read what others have written and another to gain understanding on the spot.”

Grand National Party candidate Na Kyung-won, whose successful bid would make her the capital’s first female mayor, reacted sensitively to the remark by the lawyer-turned-civic activist.

In a meeting with reporters the following day, Na categorized the comment as “diminishing women and revealing prejudices of our society.”

Park responded that he seemed to have been misunderstood, saying that his remark was not intended to discriminate against women.

As their argument was taking place, Na recalled that former GNP chairwoman Park Geun-hye had been dubbed by her political opponents as “princess of the notebook,” which referred to her practice of relying on memos when addressing certain sensitive issues.
Former Grand National Party leader Rep. Park Geun-hye enters the main chamber of the National Assembly last month. (Yonhap News)
Former Grand National Party leader Rep. Park Geun-hye enters the main chamber of the National Assembly last month. (Yonhap News)

The ex-GNP leader herself expressed her perception that sexism played a certain role in her failure to obtain the party nomination in the 2007 presidential election while meeting then-U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Alexander Vershbow in March 2008, according to a document recently released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. She lost the primary race by a narrow margin of 1.5 percentage points to former construction company CEO Lee Myung-bak, who was later elected president, putting the conservative party in power for the first time in a decade.

In his dispatch to the State Department in early 2007, Vershbow predicted Park would not be nominated as the party’s presidential candidate, writing, “many, even in the GNP, say that Korea may not be ready yet to elect a female president.” He added that “even if she loses this time, Park will remain a key figure in Korean politics for many years to come.”

Now Korean voters appear more ready to see a woman take the helm, as suggested by a string of surveys. According to a March poll of 2,582 adults across the country, 74 percent of respondents said they did not view having a female president negatively, with 36.9 percent preferring a woman as head of state. Only 17.9 percent said it is “too early” for a woman to become president. There were small discrepancies between the attitudes of male and female respondents. More than 37 percent of men thought that sex does not matter in choosing a president and 33.9 percent would prefer a woman as president, compared with the corresponding figures for women, which stood at 36.3 percent and 39.7 percent, respectively. Slightly more than 20 percent of male voters felt it was too early to elect a female president, while 15.2 percent of female voters felt the same.

A 53-year-old man surnamed Seo, who runs a small company, said he would have no problem if women took both the presidency and Seoul mayoralty, adding that he is an ardent supporter of Na.

A male student at Seoul’s Yonsei University said sex will not factor in his vote. “What is important is the ability and character of a candidate,” said the student, 20, who gave only his family name Lee.

A 48-year-old housewife, who requested anonymity, said she believed a woman would be more suitable for handling practical matters related to citizens’ livelihoods as Seoul mayor. She added she has not yet made her choice for the next presidential election.

Many experts note the changing public perception shows an increasing number of voters are looking to female politicians as alternatives to the male-dominated political establishment they have become fed up with.

“With democracy taking a firm root, ideological issues have faded away and people have become more concerned with matters connected to everyday life,” said Kim Won-hong, research fellow at the Korean Women’s Development Institute.

“Under this circumstance, the perception of women being more delicate and clean-fingered than men is serving to galvanize their participation in politics,” he said.

An aide to Rep. Jung Young-hee of the Future Hope Party, who commissioned the survey in March, also noted voters are paying less attention to candidates’ sex, focusing on the content of their policy pledges.

Obstacles to overcome

The changing public sentiment should ease the victim mentality expressed by both the former GNP chairwoman and the party’s candidate for Seoul mayor. Political observers, however, indicate it falls far short of guaranteeing they will achieve their eventual political dreams of shattering the highest and hardest glass ceiling for women in the country.

They say Park and Na should overcome another big shift in voter support toward nonpartisan figures, which is being expedited by the failure of major parties in addressing their immediate concerns.

Park, whose status as presidential frontrunner had not been threatened for years, saw her approval rating overtaken, though briefly, by enthusiastic public support for entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Cheol-soo early last month. Ahn’s spectacular rise over just a week, when he hinted at his independent bid for Seoul mayoralty and then stepped back to endorse the activist as the liberal bloc’s candidate, panicked the GNP and the main opposition Democratic Party. The professor’s endorsement boosted Park’s approval rating by almost 10 folds to nearly 50 percent, forcing Na into an uphill battle.

Both Park and Na should attract middle-class voters in their 30s and 40s, who constitute the core of the nonpartisan whirlwind, to follow through their political challenges, observers note.

GNP officials describe the relationship between the two women as “neither close nor distant.”

Park, 59, came forward last Thursday to announce her pledge to campaign for Na, 47, and other party candidates in the Oct. 26 by-elections, which will pick heads of 11 small cities, wards and counties as well as Seoul mayor. Noting that the political circle as a whole is in crisis, Park also said she will do her best to change the GNP and party politics.

The former GNP leader had sparked speculation over her stance on Na’s mayoral bid as she had refrained from making public her support for days after Na’s appointment as party candidate in late September. Some observers said Park might be hesitating to throw her weight behind Na as she was concerned that the election of Na as the first female mayor of Seoul would steal some focus from her. Her aides dismissed the speculation, saying Park had wanted the party to endorse her plan for expanding welfare programs before committing herself to helping party candidates in by-election campaigns, which formally kick off Thursday.

Na, who had been critical of the GNP’s move to copy what she called the populist welfare pledges of the opposition, eased her position to draw Park’s support.

The lawyer-turned-lawmaker, who submitted her resignation on Sept. 28 to run in the mayoral race, had been one of the few GNP members siding with former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon in his push for a referendum to block the opposition-controlled city council’s scheme to provide all schoolchildren with free lunches. Oh stepped down in August after the plebiscite was scuttled due to a low turnout.

Complicated partnership

Asked about the possible impact of the result of Na’s mayoral bid on her second presidential challenge, Park, daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, drew a line between them, saying they are not related with each other.

Political analysts say Park will feel compelled to go all out to support party candidates, or at least to give the image of doing so for Na, in the upcoming by-elections which will set the tone for the parliamentary and presidential elections next year. While serving as GNP leader for more than two years until June 2006, she led her party to a surprisingly good result in the parliamentary elections in April 2004 and multiple wins in subsequent local and by-elections.

In a possible effect of Park’s pledge to back her, Na has seen her approval rating, which lagged behind support for the civic activist by around 10 percent, climbing steadily in some recent polls.

She has emphasized her ability to coordinate conflicts, which she said had been proven during her days as judge, will make her a successful mayor. In a TV debate last month, Na also said her election as Seoul mayor will help pave the way for Park to become president.

Some aides to Park still appear to have concerns that Na’s mayoral bid will be a burden on Park’s presidential challenge.

“If (Na) is elected, voters may feel burdened to choose another woman as president,” an aide said, requesting anonymity.

“The opposite case would lead some to highlight what they see as the limit of women.”

The primary race for Seoul mayoral candidacy also witnessed a female opposition lawmaker emerging as a potential presidential contender.

Rep. Park Young-sun, DP’s chief policymaker, defeated three other contenders to win the party nomination but lost the unified candidacy of the liberal camp to civic leader Park Won-soon. She was still praised for pulling her party out of inertia that had been deepened in the sweeping nonpartisan sentiment.

On the heels of the three female politicians under spotlight are coming a group of women lawmakers who have been heightening their political status. Observers pay attention particularly to some female legislators who succeeded in being elected by voters in districts in the latest general elections in 2008 after proving their ability for four years as a first-term lawmaker elected by proportional representation. Both Na and Park Young-sun belong to the group which also includes Reps. Kim Young-sun, Chin Soo-hee, Lee Hye-hoon and Chun Yu-ok from the GNP and Rep. Cho Bae-sook of the DP. First-term lawmakers Cho Yoon-sun, Chung Ok-nim, Jeon Hyun-heui, Park Sun-sook and Lee Jung-hee have been also drawing attention with their conspicuous activities, preparing to run in a constituency in next year’s election. Cho and Chung are from the GNP, Jeon and Park from the DP and Lee heads the left-leaning splinter party Democratic Labor Party.

Further presence

Many observers indicate female politicians still have a long way to go before expanding their presence in the political landscape, which remains far below the sex ratio. According to figures from the National Assembly, the number of female lawmakers currently stands at 42, accounting for only 13.7 percent of the 299-member parliament. There was only one female lawmaker at the Constitutional Assembly elected in 1948, three years after the country’s liberalization from Japan’s colonial rule. The number incrementally increased with its proportion remaining at a negligible level.

The number of women legislators saw a sharp increase to 39 in the 2004 election from 16 four years earlier as a revised law obliged major parties to fill half of their proportional representation list with female candidates.

Most of the female lawmakers elected to the National Assembly thorough the proportional representation system in the previous two elections were experts in specific fields such as lawyers, professors and journalists. 

The number of women running in parliamentary constituencies increased over the past decades from seven in 1985 to 21 in 1996, 65 in 2004 and 132 in 2008 with their proportion also rising from 1.6 percent to 11.9 percent over the cited period, according to statistics from the Korean Women’s Development Institute. Of the 132 women competing in districts in the 2008 election, only 14 won, accounting for a meager 5.7 percent of the 245 lawmakers elected from districts.

An official at the GNP secretariat said about 300 female officials of the GNP and other smaller parties are expected to bid for the 2012 general elections.

In the survey in March, more than 60 percent of respondents said the number of women lawmakers should increase, with 15.9 percent and 21.8 percent replying it should decrease or be frozen.

The proportion of female lawmakers at the 13-percent level is far below those in some European countries such as Finland, Germany and Sweden where 40-50 percent of parliamentarians are women.

According to figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Korea ranked 89th in the list of 189 countries in terms of the proportion of women lawmakers in June 2008.

On the regional levels, the number of local councilors has increased since the local autonomy was restored in 1995. According to statistics from the National Election Commission, the number of women elected to local councils in small cities, wards and counties increased from 71 in 1995 to 436 in 2006 and 636 in 2010, with their proportion also rising from 1.56 percent to 22 percent over the cited period. The number of women councilors in provincial and metropolitan councils also climbed from 56 (5.8 percent) in 1995 to 88 (11.9 percent) in 2006 and 113 (14.8 percent) in 2010.

Female officials from political parties and civic groups have recently held a series of meetings and seminars transcending differences in their political identity to discuss ways to enhance women’s presence in politics.

“I think it is our duty to make ceaseless challenges for elected posts,” said a DP official in charge of female affairs.

By Kim Kyung-ho (