With the next general elections five months away, momentum toward generational change is building in South Korea’s political circles, where the handful of young politicians can hardly make themselves heard.
Most senior lawmakers of major political parties in the country are preoccupied with their vested interests and are inept at, or indifferent to, handling a range of complicated challenges facing the nation.
Catalyzing the calls for change in both the ruling Democratic Party and main opposition Liberty Korea Party is the need to field fresh candidates for winning in the parliamentary elections slated for April 15.
Two figures with significant political clout in the opposing camps recently added weight to the argument for an overhaul by announcing that they would not run in the upcoming elections.
The announcements by Rep. Kim Se-yeon, a three-term Liberty Korea Party lawmaker, and Im Jong-seok, a former Democratic Party legislator and presidential chief of staff, came as a surprise because both of them were considered to have had a good chance of keeping or retaking their seat in the 300-member National Assembly.
Kim went on to call for the Liberty Korea Party leadership and all other party lawmakers to give up their election bids to allow the party to start anew from scratch.
His request might sound somewhat unrealistic, but apparently reflected a growing sense of frustration among party members.
The party’s support rating has continued to fall, as it has failed to win over voters by recruiting new competent figures and suggesting concrete visions for the future of the nation. In a Gallup Korea poll released last Friday, voter support for the Liberty Korea Party was tallied at 21 percent, down 2 percentage points from a week earlier, compared with 40 percent for the ruling party. The decline in voter support is all the more frustrating and embarrassing for the main opposition party, as it comes amid public anger over corruption and fraud allegations involving one of President Moon Jae-in’s close associates and his family.
Actually, the conservative party has seen the gap in voter support with the liberal ruling party widen further since the resignation of Justice Minister Cho Kuk in October, about a month after he was appointed to the post by Moon.
This indicates that public outcry over illegalities allegedly committed by Cho’s family will not necessarily turn into support for the opposition party in the next parliamentary elections.
Im’s announcement that he would not run in the elections and quit establishment politics appears to have taken aback the so-called “86 group” of politicians, who attended college in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s. Im, who led a student movement against the past military-backed authoritarian governments, is one of the figures representing the group, which has formed the mainstream of the ruling party.
Besides Kim and Im, a few other lawmakers from the two main parties have decided not to run in the next parliamentary elections, agreeing on the need to overhaul the lineup of candidates.
But their senior colleagues under mounting pressure to make a political retreat have remained reluctant or are resisting the calls to give up their parliamentary seats to make way for younger politicians.
It is true that generational change alone will not be sufficient to bring meaningful change in politics, which is split along ideological lines and hamstrung by partisan wrangling. Political parties should work out concrete and sensible platforms and policies that could lead the country to overcome various difficulties in economic, social and security areas.
But bringing more fresh figures into the political arena is essential to enable the parties to reflect voters’ views and interests in a more balanced way.
People aged 19-39 accounted for 35.7 percent of eligible voters in the last legislative general election in 2016 but only three candidates in the age group were elected to the Assembly.
The average age of candidates elected to the parliament was in the 40s until the 1980s. But it has continued to increase, as members of the “86 group” have become establishment forces. The average age of candidates elected to the parliament in 2016 was a record 55.5.
A survey conducted last year by the Inter-Parliamentary Union showed South Korea going against the global trend of increasing the proportion of younger lawmakers. Legislators aged less than 45 accounted for only 6.3 percent of all members of parliament in the country, near the bottom among the 150 nations surveyed.
Senior lawmakers may suggest many individual reasons to retain their parliamentary seats. But the priority task required of them now is to open the door wider for younger people to join the legislature.