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[Robert J. Fouser] Looking ahead to the 2017 election

A month ago, I argued that President Park Geun-hye should resign for the good of the nation. Since then, candlelight protests calling for her resignation have grown and the National Assembly have moved rapidly toward impeachment. A vote on impeachment will mostly likely take place at the end of this week.

The political crisis engulfing the nation has entered its second month and shows signs of dragging on further. If the National Assembly votes to impeach the president, then the prime minister would become acting president while Constitutional Court would have up to six months to decide her fate. Removing her from office would result in a presidential election within two months. The process could take up to eight months, which would deprive the nation of leadership in turbulent times. A decision not to remove her from office would extend the leaderless period even longer until the presidential election in December.

In most recent apology to the nation, President Park offered to resign after the National Assembly could agree on a framework for her replacement. This has been taken by many as a ploy to buy time rather than a sincere desire to resign. The National Assembly has continued to move toward impeachment since the president spoke.

The heat of the moment in a political crisis focuses the discussion on the here are now. This leaves out the important question about what happens after the crisis is resolved. Park Geun-hye leaving the Blue House would bring a resolution to the current crisis, but what comes next?

At some point in 2017 a presidential election will be held. It will come early if Park leaves office before the end of her term, causing a scramble among those interested in succeeding her. If she finishes her term, they will have more time to prepare. The election will be for a single five-year term.

The upcoming election will be unique in Korean history because the establishment conservative party lacks a competitive candidate. According to opinion polls, none of the leading potential candidates are members of President Park’s Saenuri Party. Moon Jae-in, the runner up in the last election, has the lead, followed by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Lee Jae-myung, the mayor of Seongnam has moved into third place and Ahn Cheol-soo, the former software entrepreneur has dropped to fourth place. Sohn Hak-kyu, a former governor of Gyeonggi Province, and Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, round out the pack.

Among these candidates, Moon Jae-in, Lee Jae-myung, and Park Won-soon are members of the Democratic Party. Ahn Cheol-soo is a co-founder of the People’s Party, and Ban Ki-moon and Sohn Hak-kyu are independents. On an ideological spectrum, the three members of the Democratic Party are considered center-left, whereas Ahn and the two independents are establishment moderates.

Three parameters determine the ideological spectrum in Korea: the economy, democracy, and North Korea. Center-right has traditionally emphasized economic growth and a hardline stance toward North Korea, whereas the center-left has focused on democracy and economic equality.

The 2017 election will be the seventh since democratization in 1987. Center-right candidates have won elections in 1987, 1992, 2007 and 2012, whereas center-left candidates have won only twice, in 1997 and 2002, by narrow margins. The pattern, however, reveals a stable 10-year cycle. Each of the presidents at the end of the cycle, Kim Young-sam, Roh Moo-hyun, and Park Geun-hye left office in crisis (Kim and Park) or very unpopular (Roh). 

All of this suggests that 2017 will mean the election of a center-left candidate. Moon Jae-in appears to be in the strongest position because he was the runner up last time, but Lee Jae-myung’s popularity is rising rapidly. His outspoken outsider image has broad appeal in a time of weak leadership. Though popular, Park Won-soon has yet to gain traction.

The current political crisis has exacerbated the cynicism in Korean politics, particularly among young people. A similar cynicism in the US helps explain why Donald Trump, the only candidate in history with no government experience, beat the experienced Hillary Clinton. For the potential candidates in Korea, this gives an advantage to new faces over experienced politicians.

Lee Jae-myung stands to gain the most from the current mood, which explains his surge in recent polls. Ban Ki-moon would also be a fresh face, but his background is most likely too establishment for the times. The same holds true, to varying degrees, for all the other candidates, leaving Lee Jae-myung the man to watch.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He can be reached at -- Ed.