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[ELECTION 2016] Steering young generation into politics

South Korea will elect new National Assembly members in a general election on April 13. The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles on the candidate agendas, election trends and notable runners leading up to the race. This is the second installment. -- Ed

Lee Dong-hak was 23 years old when he first got a taste of politics. He had enrolled in the then-ruling Uri Party, a precursor to The Minjoo Party of Korea, as a part-timer for a party event in 2003. Now, the 33-year-old is running in the April election as the main opposition party’s candidate to compete against the liberal heavyweight Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo in Nowon-gu, Seoul.

“I want to add diversity to the politics dominated by the older generation,” Lee told The Korea Herald. He served on the party’s reform committee in recent years.

“Even though there are many decisions being made that could impact the younger generation in the future, young people don’t have enough say in the process. I want to create a table where different generation sit down together and make political decision collectively,” he said. Lee and 11 other preliminary candidates for the Minjoo Party in their 20s and 30s announced their bid to run on Feb. 3.
Young preliminary candidates of The Minjoo Party of Korea including Lee Dong-hak (center) hold a press conference announcing their bids at the National Assembly on Feb. 3. (Yonhap)
Young preliminary candidates of The Minjoo Party of Korea including Lee Dong-hak (center) hold a press conference announcing their bids at the National Assembly on Feb. 3. (Yonhap)

Lee is one of the younger candidates seeking to reverse Korea’s political climate, where young voters have remained indifferent to politics, frustrated by the old establishment’s failure to address their agenda post-election.

According to statistics from the National Election Commission, the number of candidates in their 20s and 30s has been decreasing since reaching its peak of 206 in the 1996 elections. The 2004, 2008 and 2012 elections saw 160, 148 and 33 young candidates, respectively.

The same is true for the number of young voters. The election watchdog’s data showed that the turnout among those in their 20s at the 2004 and 2008 elections were about 45 and 28 percent, respectively. The 2012 elections’ turnout was 40 percent, the lowest in all age groups.

“It creates a vicious circle of political indifference among young people,” said Lee Nae-young, professor of comparative politics at Korea University. “As Korea’s aging society and older generation dominates politics, young people feel less likely to engage in the politics and cast their ballots,” he said.

Rise and fall of activists-turned-politicians

There was a time when the legislative branch was significantly populated with fresh-faced lawmakers. The 2004 general election saw a total of 187 first-termers in the 299-strong National Assembly.

Of them, 129 were in their 30s and 40s and only 49 lawmakers were in their 60s or older. Most of those young lawmakers had built their reputations after spearheading college students’ democratic movements in the 1980s.

However, as these activists-turned-politicians lost touch with average voters, the younger lawmakers did not constitute a new mainstream in politics. For instance, among the 108 first-term lawmakers with the progressive Uri Party, 73 lost their seats in the 2008 election.

“Values coming from the student-led democratic campaigns of the past are less likely to resonate with young voters. Since the current generation didn’t go through that movement, they have become indifferent to the ideological agenda,” Lee said.

The lack of youth participation in politics and decision-making has long been a common problem.

“No one is born a good citizen, no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline,” Kofi Annan, former U.N. secretary-general, had said.

In the 2013 U.N. Development Program Report, it points out that young people between the ages of 15 and 25 constitute a fifth of the world’s population, and yet, while they are often involved in informal political processes, they are not formally represented in national political institutions, thereby hurting the quality of democratic governance.

The report suggests considering youth as agents of change instead of a problem to be resolved by others. It also recommends that the young should not considered a homogenous block but should be viewed based on their social aspects, such as gender and background. Political participation of young people should extend across the electoral cycle such as by consistently developing young candidates’ capacity beyond the one-off election event, it said.

Opening doors for the youth

South Korea’s major parties have also been taking steps to galvanize young voters and political aspirants.

The ruling Saenuri Party decided to give extra points to the young candidates when the party select candidates for the election. The candidates must be under the age of 45 and have no record of having run in past elections.

The conservative party had brought in young politicians to put them in charge of reforming the party and competing against liberal heavyweights in key constituencies. Political rookie Son Su-jo, then 27, ran against former presidential candidate Rep. Moon Jae-in in the 2012 general election in Busan. Although her challenge failed, the relatively close race was considered a blow to the political heavyweight.

The Saenuri Party’s Lee Jun-seok, 31, will also be going up against Lee Dong-hak and Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo in the Nowon constituency. Lee, the former chief of the party’s Innovation Committee, had spearheaded efforts to win young votes for then presidential-candidate Park Geun-hye’s presidential campaign in 2012. He has since built on his reputation as TV personality.
The Saenuri Party’s Lee Jun-seok gets ready to announce his bid to run in the April 13 elections at the National Assembly on Jan. 24. (Yonhap)
The Saenuri Party’s Lee Jun-seok gets ready to announce his bid to run in the April 13 elections at the National Assembly on Jan. 24. (Yonhap)

“It is now time for the citizens, the true owner of this country, to lay the basis on which we can achieve generation change, before any (opposition’s) attempt to change the administration. … Although there are those who say I am too young, please pay attention to things that I can do because I am young,” he said on Jan. 24 while announcing his bid.

The main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, for its part, has been pushing to lower the voting age from 19 to 18. The country had lowered the age from 20 to 19 in 2005.

The Minjoo Party asserts that the scheme would allow more young people to exercise their constitutional right to participate in politics. The Saenuri Party opposes the plan, dismissing it as being politically-motivated, in apparent fear of younger voters bolstering the progressive opposition camp.

And their concerns are justified by the growing anti-government movement among the younger demographics, particularly upon the government’s repeated slipshod measures against recent crises including the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster and the 2015 MERS outbreak. Students have also taken to the street since last month over the Dec. 28 Korea-Japan agreement on World War II sex slavery.

Among 34 countries from Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea and Poland are the only two countries with voting ages above 18 -- at 19 and 21, respectively.

But experts remain skeptical of the major parties’ attempt to win back young voters, highlighting that the parties are still crowded with politicians who are reluctant to clear the table to let the youth in, particularly in the nomination process.

“I don’t think there is a significant inflow of young politicians,” said Kim Min-jeon, a political science professor at Kyung Hee University. “The average age of incumbent lawmakers is 58 and the parties’ designated age limit of allocating proportional seats is 39. That explains a lot,” she said.

“In order to encourage young generation to join the politics, the parties have to give them incentives. Given that young people are not on an equal footing with old establishment politicians, the parties could provide them with more benefits regarding their nomination process and financial support,” Kim said.

By Yeo Jun-suk (