Politics a major fault line . . .
With less than five months to go until South Korea’s next presidential election, a new poll by Pew Research shows the pervasiveness of political division in that society. According to the survey, 90 per cent of Koreans feel that conflict between people who support different political parties is either “strong” (40%) or “very strong” (50%). That was considerably higher than 15 of the 16 other advanced economies included in the poll. Only the U.S. public also felt this way about their level of political rancour (90%). The next-highest on the list was Taiwan (69%), and the overall median was 50 per cent.
Power of the person . . .
While the Pew survey sheds light on a major source of division in Korean society, it does not capture the complexity of political party affiliation there. The country has been democratic for more than three decades, but its political party system is weak and unstable, with parties dissolving and re-naming themselves with regularity, often due to intra-party disagreements. The political dynamic tends to be shaped by the politics of the person, with people rallying more behind – and against – a personality than a party. Experts have observed this dynamic taking on an increasingly zero-sum and ad hominem tone, with one describing a “politics of extreme confrontation” having become the new normal. Moreover, whereas toxic populism has emerged mainly on the right in other democracies, one expert has noted a “nativist nationalism” that has taken hold among some left-wing Korean politicians.
Let the allegations fly . . .
If Korean voters were hoping that the current electoral cycle might represent a break from this dynamic, they have reasons to be disappointed. The parties’ nominees or leading candidates have smeared each other with allegations of professional and personal scandals and abuse of power. The media have played along, even while some outlets lament what appears to be a kind of race-to-the-bottom tone of the political debate. That could be diverting attention away from substantive policy issues that are top of mind for many voters: widening inequality, pernicious employment challenges, and big questions about Seoul’s relationship with its three neighbours, China, Japan, and North Korea.
- Nikkei Asia: South Korean presidential campaign mired in mudslinging
- Nikkei Asia: Wealth gap set to dominate South Korean presidential race
- Pew Research Center: Diversity and division in advanced economies