As the presidential election gets closer, candidates have picked up the pace of campaigning in the hope of reaching out to a dwindling pool of malleable voters. Polls continue to show a tight race between Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol, with Ahn Cheol-soo and Sim Sang-jung far behind. Since Lee and Yoon received their nominations, polls have been remarkably stable. As of this writing, Yoon has a slight lead, but within the margin of error in most polls.
Since democratization in 1987, South Korea has had seven presidential elections; March 9 will be the eighth. Several patterns have emerged that offer hints into how this election might turn out.
The first is passion. The 1987 election came after 26 years of military dictatorship, first under Park Chung-hee and then under Chun Doo-hwan. Hopes for democracy after Park’s assassination in 1979 were dashed as Chun took power in a coup and cracked down on dissent. Those hopes stirred resistance to Chun’s rule and, by the mid-1980s, sustained protests calling for a direct presidential election. Mass pro-democracy demonstrations in the spring of 1987 forced Roh Tae-woo, Chun’s handpicked successor, to agree to demands for a direct election and democratic reforms.
The Democracy Movement, as it is now referred to, was full of passion. In the spring of 1987, that passion forced change. The heart of the movement was student activists who carried their passion and idealism with them as they got older. Their passion gathered new force in 2002 to put Roh Moo-hyun in the top and again in 2017 to elect Moon Jae-in.
Other politicians have stirred passion in their supporters. Kim Dae-jung benefited from solid support from his home region of Jeolla Province, and, to a lesser extent, Kim Young-sam benefited from strong support in the Busan area. Park Geun-hye, too, enjoyed strong regional support in the Daegu area. Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, by contrast, enjoyed passionate generational support that cut across regions.
Poll after poll shows Lee Jae-myung with a strong lead with voters who experienced the Democracy Movement and who voted Roh and Moon into office. The important question for Lee is the depth of passion among his supporters. If their passion is strong, then he could pull ahead and win. If not, then he will most likely falter.
The second is fear. In politics, passion leads to idealism and hope for change, but fear leads to a conservative rejection of change. To date, South Koreans have lived with two big fears: North Korea and economic insecurity. Since the Korean War, generations of South Koreans lived in fear of another North Korean invasion. Military dictators justified their rule as a necessity to keep the nation safe. Fearing North Korea, older generations prefer leaders who take a hard-line with the North while maintaining a strong alliance with the US.
Older generations know poverty and have experienced sharp economic downturns in 1980 and 1997. They fear that miscalculation in the process of change could hurt the economy and prefer the status quo. They believe that Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in are out-of-touch idealists. The important question for Yoon Suk-yeol is the depth of fear among his older supporters. The more worried they are, the greater his support. Fear also drives Yoon’s support among worried and increasingly angry young people.
The third is spoilers. The history of elections in modern democracies is full of stories about how fringe candidates and minor parties tipped elections. In South Korea, it happened most clearly in 1997, when a conservative split gave Kim Dae-jung the advantage. In 2002, a small left-wing party drained votes from Roh Moo-hyun, reducing his margin of victory to a narrow 2.3 percent. Deep divisions among conservatives in 2017 made Moon Jae-in the favorite, but left-leaning Sim Sang-jung still drew almost 7 percent, thus reducing Moon’s margin of victory.
Recent polls show Ahn Cheol-soo getting an average of about 6.5 percent of the vote and Sim Sang-jung getting about 2.5 percent. Sim has reached bottom, but Ahn’s support is harder to predict. If both leave the race, most of Ahn’s support will go to Yoon, while Sim’s will go to Lee. The important question for Lee and Yoon is which, if any, of the spoilers will drop out. If neither drops out, then it will be a close race between passion and fear. In that case, the state of world affairs suggests a slight edge for fear.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.