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What Mandate Will South Korea’s Next President Have?

South Korea’s Presidential Election
ROK President Moon. Image Credit:

Fragmentation in the South Korean Presidential Election Means a Weak Mandate for its Next President: South Korea’s presidential election is in March. The polling is very tight. The primary right-wing and left-wing candidates are running neck-and-neck, in the low 30s%. There is also an alternative left-wing candidate polling around 3% and an alternative moderate right-wing candidate polling around 17%. The remainder of voters are split among outsider candidates or are undecided.

This is a highly fragmented electorate – made even worse by sharp ideological polarization. Despite months of campaigning and some rather outlandish scandals on both sides, the polling has not moved much. Neither major party candidate has broken 40% in polling, and neither is remotely close to a majority – breaking the 50% barrier. Indeed, if the last few months of polling hold, then the winner will win the presidency with little more than 1/3 of the electorate’s support and just a few more points than his opponent.

Fragmentation in Modern Democracies like South Korea

Political science worries a lot about party fragmentation. Although voters often complain that parties are corrupt or the platform of vanity and ambition, political science tends to prefer stable, coherent parties. Parties groom and socialize future elites. They channel the voters’ interests into established institutions and patterns which, hopefully, reduces radicalism and enhances policy predictability over time. Parties are no guarantee of stability, of course. But stable democracies tend to have stable parties which can reach a wide audience and build coherent and durable coalitions behind elected governments.

This is eroding in many contemporary democracies, where the pressures of populism have broken established coalitions recently. In South Korea, this has meant a decline in the mobilizing capacity of the country’s mainstream right and left parties, as their chronically weak polling illustrates. The reasons for this are not clear. The right has recently suffered from severe infighting. A conservative president was impeached in 2017, which nearly lead to the implosion of the mainstream right-wing party. Korea’s left-wing party, with a basic social democratic orientation akin to left-wing parties in Europe, has also, curiously, lost voter support despite decades of a coherent political identity.

In the 1960s and 70s, political science discussed notions of ‘ungovernability’ and ‘overload.’ The argument went that as democracies mature, they are overrun by interest groups and are increasingly unable to make hard policy choices that inflict clear losses on losers. Stasis sets in, and political divisions ossify. Parties prove unable to win clear majorities, and the system calcifies. Political scientist Maurice Duverger referred to this as ‘immobilism.’

A South Korean election that returns a president with only a 35% plurality victory looks suspiciously like these political science concerns. 35% would formally be legitimate of course. The South Korean constitution awards the presidency to the candidate with the highest vote total – a plurality in a first-past-the-post race. But realistically, a new South Korean president with such a low vote total would have no mandate. And if that weak-mandate president were from the right, the system would almost certainly gridlock, as the South Korean legislature has a leftist majority.

An Unconsolidated Two-Party System

Duverger thought one answer to this fragmentation would be the desire to win elections. He argued that in a first-past-the-post plurality electoral system, there were powerful incentives for small, alternative left- and right-wing parties to drop out of elections in order to avoid throwing elections to the other side. The most famous example of this is the Florida election in the US 2000 presidential race. That election was famously thrown into a protracted recount fight. But had the alterative left-wing candidate Ralph Nader not run president then, his votes would mostly have gone to Al Gore, and Gore would have easily won the state.

This logic – in which a plurality election contest drives the consolidation of a two-party system – is so robust that political science calls it ‘Duverger’s Law.’ But curiously, South Korea does not conform to this, even though its presidential race is a plurality system. If, for example, the alternative left-wing candidate exited the race, her 3% polling, although small, would noticeably elevate the mainstream left-wing candidate because the race is so close.

The French Two-Ballot System?

Many presidential democracies have similar issues. (The US does not because of the Electoral College, a unique system no other democracy employs.) Presidential races attract attention-seekers and vanity candidates, which is almost certainly one of South Korea’s candidates and who also showed in up California’s recall elections in 2003 and 2021.

France devised a solution to this fragmentation – a second election conducted two weeks after the first one. Anyone can run in the first ballot, but the second is restricted to the top two vote winners of the first ballot. This two-candidate choice in the second ballot mathematically forces a majority vote for the winner. It is a purposeful effort to engineer a mandate to govern, even if one is not forthcoming in the first ballot.

The French system has its problems too. But South Korea, like other presidential democracies, need presidential winners who can actually govern, but this year’s fragmented polling suggests a hamstrung winner will emerge.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.