South Korea
Neck-and-Neck Race: Presidential Election in South Korea

Wahlen Südkorea

© picture alliance / Kyodo | -  

With only a few days left ahead of South Korea's presidential election on March 9, the presidential race remains unpredictable. Depending on the polls, either the leading candidate of the ruling left-wing liberal party or his rival from the conservative opposition party is found to be ahead. However, the bitter election campaign has generated little public enthusiasm.

On March 9, about 43 million South Koreans will be called to vote. They will directly elect their president for a single five-year term. Twelve candidates are officially registered for the election, but two candidates are taking lead: Lee Jae-myung of the ruling left-liberal Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and Yoon Seok-yeol of the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP). Under South Korea's presidential system, the head of state exercises a great decision-making power. Free democratic elections have been taking place in South Korea since 1987, and they have always been marked by fierce election campaigns between the two opposing political camps.

Longing for Change

For the first time since democratization, the two leading candidates do not have any legislative experiences in the Korean National Assembly. The reason for this development is likely to be a growing public distrust of established politicians and a desire to see fresh political figures emerge from outside. When the former president Park Geun-hye was impeached and sentenced to prison for abuse of power in 2017, public distrust on the ruling party was so high that the conservative camp was forced out of office. A left-liberal government under President Moon Jae-in subsequently rose to power. However, his government could not avoid political scandals, e.g., involving the former justice minister, and thus again created public disappointment.

Nevertheless, the relatively fresh candidate of the ruling left-wing liberals has a chance to become president on the coming Wednesday. Lee Jae-myung is former Mayor of the city of Seongnam and the Governor of Gyeonggi Province. Both tenures increased his popularity. His supporters emphasized his quick measures to revive the sluggish local economy, which was hit hard in the wake of the Corona pandemic. Lee Jae-myung ran as a presidential candidate back in 2017. However, he failed in an intra-party competition against Moon Jae-in, who later became the President. The intense intra-party struggle caused his relationship with Moon and the Democratic Party leadership to become rather distant, which now helps him to be seen as a fresh candidate.

His main rival, conservative Yoon Seok-yeol, is former Prosecutor General. Independent and prominent, Yoon was appointed by the left-liberal President Moon. Yoon was considered a prosecutor who did not shy away from cases against the highest political circles. President Moon praised this independence when Yoon was appointed. Soon after however, he wanted to shake him off. Yoon had initiated an investigation against people in President Moon's inner circle, including his former justice minister. Faced with huge political pressure, Yoon had to resign at the end. However, this earned him great popularity in the conservative camp. Yoon was named as the conservative candidate for the presidential elections, although he has never held any political office. In this respect, he is also a fresh candidate. He made numerous verbal missteps after his nomination, mainly due to his lack of political experiences. Also, squabbles within the conservative party have taken a toll on Yoon's campaign.

Lofty campaign promises - Little Substance

The economy, especially real-estate policy and economic recovery, as well as foreign policy are the most important issues of the election campaign. For young people, the main discontent comes from the skyrocketing increase in housing prices over the past years. The fact that the government has not been able to properly cope with it works more favorably for the opposition. The two candidates propose opposing economic policies. The left-liberal candidate Lee stresses distribution and regulation. He had become famous with his call for an unconditional basic income. The conservative Yoon, on the other hand, stands for deregulation and "pro-growth".

In foreign policy, Yoon takes a hard line towards North Korea and wants to strengthen the alliance between South Korea and the United States. Lee, meanwhile, plans to pursue a policy of engagement with North Korea. He stresses that not only should the interests of the U.S - a key ally - be considered, but the interests of China - its largest trading partner - should also be respected. However, due to China's aggressive great power policy in recent years, public resentment in South Korea towards its expanding neighbor is strong. Both candidates therefore recently voiced up their criticism of China.

Despite these clear differences, the election campaign is far from being shaped by political programs. Personal attacks against the opponent, scandals, alleged scandals and missteps are dominating the debates. Yoon, for example, was accused of turning to shamanistic advisers. Lee and his wife, on the other hand, were accused of using city employees for personal errands, such as supermarket shopping. None of the leading candidates have been able to propose a comprehensive vision for the future. Instead, both make populist promises: Millions of new homes, higher salaries and expansion of social systems. They outdo each other with announcements of which actual implementations are questionable.

Choice of the Lesser Evil

South Korea's voters are no stranger to fierce presidential election campaigns between two rival parties and political scandals. But still, many experience an exceptionally distasteful and uninspiring election campaign, with negative slanders against each other. Lee and Yoon may be leading in the polls, but none of them are particularly popular. There is no enthusiasm; in the eyes of many, the lesser evil has to be elected. Whoever wins the race, Lee or Yoon, the new president will face the great challenge of uniting South Korea's divided society behind him.


Sungeun Lim is Program Manager for South Korea at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Korea office in Seoul.