The Korea Herald


[Voters &] Will swing voters bother to vote?

Feeling betrayed by both sides, voters more willing to choose beyond party allegiance

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : Feb. 3, 2022 - 12:19

    • Link copied

Travelers at the Seoul Express Bus Terminal in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, on Wednesday walk past a placard encouraging people to vote for the upcoming presidential election on March 9. (Yonhap) Travelers at the Seoul Express Bus Terminal in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, on Wednesday walk past a placard encouraging people to vote for the upcoming presidential election on March 9. (Yonhap)
Kim Ki-hyeon, a 30-year-old salesperson based in Seoul, cast his first ballot in a presidential election in December 2012. That election was won by Park Geun-hye from the conservative Saenuri Party.

The first election he ever participated in turned out to be a huge disappointment. His preferred candidate won, but Park was riddled with allegations of corruption, misbehavior and a lackluster performance, and ultimately impeached after hundreds of thousands of people descended upon the Gwanghwamun Square to protest for months.

Disappointed with the right-wing party, Kim in 2017 cast his vote for Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea. Yet he believes life has become increasingly difficult ever since, with scandals and corruption still too common despite the change.

Approaching the upcoming election to pick the 20th president of South Korea, Kim says he has completely lost trust in both the right- and left-wing blocs, saying he is going to make his choice by considering who will benefit him the most regardless of what party the candidate is associated with.

"All these parties, whatever their names may be, and whoever might be elected to represent them -- they all look the same to me," Kim told The Korea Herald.

"Whoever I picked with my vote didn’t really matter, it seems. Food has become expensive anyways, and my parents say they have never paid this much in tax before. People are fighting over ideologies, and there are reports of corruption and scandal on the news every single day."

Kim represents a growing group of voters who are dissatisfied with party allegiance- and ideology-based politics after undergoing much disappointment with the performance of conservative and liberal blocs. He is one of the young voters in their 20s and 30s who have been touted as "swing voters" in the upcoming election.

Voters in their 20s and 30s combined account for approximately 34 percent of all eligible voters, and candidates have been busy traveling across the country, appearing on TV shows and drawing up promises to win their support.

Experts say this growing group of swing voters represents the growth of voter sentiment and political dynamics in South Korea and will later on determine the future discourse of campaigns, elections and even what laws are made in what ways.

"If we want to examine the characteristics of each group of voters, it is essential to see what kind of environment a group has experienced in their youth and what specific events were in line during their childhood and adult years," local political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon told The Korea Herald.

"Compare what these young voters in their 20s and 30s experienced with those of their older counterparts -- that provides what constitutes the characteristics of these younger generations and why they are shunning party allegiance and don’t care much about ideologies."

Koreans in their 60s and above who were taught to fight communism, be patriotic and heavily denounce North Korea came to endorse the right-wing parties and politicians that grew from this tradition. Those in their 40s and 50s who grew up in the age of democratization and protested against dictatorships and military regimes, naturally leaned toward the left-wing parties that aligned themselves with this movement.

But Rhee says the youngest group of voters in their 20s and 30s had no striking political event in their history, which leaves them clear of any ideological influence when approaching politics. The biggest political event they have witnessed is the nation's first impeachment of a president.

What also shaped their neutrality is the betrayal of the liberal bloc after the conservative leader was impeached. Young voters helped Moon Jae-in rise to the presidency, but they were directly hurt by job losses and soaring housing prices under the incumbent administration.

Over the course of the ongoing presidential race, who these swing voters supported has heavily swayed who leads in the polls.

A Hankook Research poll from Nov. 5-7 commissioned by KBS on 1,000 voters showed that 64 percent of respondents aged between 18 and 29 said they were willing to change who they support for the presidency in the course of the race.

The rate stood at 56.9 percent for respondents in their 30s, a sharp contrast to 35.7 percent shown by the overall group of voters surveyed in the poll.

What the general public sees from this year's election will affect younger ones who will hit the voting age in later years, experts add. Observing how parties and politicians are heavily swayed by what these young swing voters want will likely influence the attitude of younger to-be-voters, they say.

"South Korean young people in their 20s and 30s are arguably the most important group for forecasting the future of South Korean democracy," said Lee Sook-jong, a public administration professor at Sungkyunkwan University, in a report last year.

"Sensitive as they are to the issues of fairness and justice, this generation could transform South Korean politics in the next decade by pressing for a more inclusive brand of politics, universal basic income, and higher taxes on the rich."

And as these young voters stay expressive of their needs and actively involve themselves in politics, experts say the skepticism that politics can bring change has waned greatly, even as distrust of parties and politicians has grown. This in turn points to better engagement of voters in elections and policy affairs.

"Many say this presidential election is the nastiest one we have ever seen, but the interest is high nevertheless," said Eom Gyeong-yeong, director of local political think tank Zeitgeist Institute, in a phone interview.

"These young voters think they can be the ones to shift the outcome of an election, and they know they can show in polls how candidates should act and what promises they should make to win their votes. This means skepticism has really lost its appeal in today’s political trend."

Rhee forecasts that these swing voters could eventually help South Korea establish a multiparty political system, where parties representing diverse groups of voters will compete to win power separately or in coalition.

"If that day comes, politics will become an entirely new, much more difficult game for politicians, and that’s a good news for voters," Rhee added. 

"These young swing voters, I believe, can pave the way for politicians to be more inclusive in who to pick as leaders and senior officials and be more precise and careful in devising tactics for elections and legislative seasons."

For more information regarding the survey results, visit the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission homepage.