Parliamentary elections have shaken South Korea's political landscape, with the ruling conservatives losing their majority. For voters, internal concerns overshadowed tensions with North Korea.
Results from South Korea's parliamentary elections, held on Wednesday, April 13, have upset predictions, showing that the conservative Saenuri Party of President Park Geun-hye lost its majority, while the left-leaning Minjoo Party snuck by to become the biggest party.
The Saenuri Party lost 35 seats to finish with 122 of 300 seats in the single-chamber parliament. The Minjoo Party ended up with 123 seats.
The results will likely spell political gridlock for President Park's last year and a half in office, grinding her planned economic reforms to a halt. They also bolster the opposition's outlook for the 2017 presidential elections.
The president has made no remark since the results were announced, but party leader Kim Moo-Sung said the "Saenuri Party humbly accepts the judgment of the people." He then announced his resignation from the position.
Hopes had not been particularly high for the left opposition, which had been plagued by infighting. In January 2014, the former software developer Ahn Cheol-su broke away from the Minjoo Party to found the People's Party, pledging to clear out the aged and corrupt party elite. The People's Party grabbed 38 seats in the election.
North Korea's recently confrontational stance also seemed to favor the Saenuri Party, whose voter base is largely drawn to its strong foreign policy stances. "Current tensions with North Korea are definitely mobilizing the classic clientele of the conservative ruling party," said Robert Kelly, a political scientist at South Korea's Pusan National University. "The left, on the other hand, is quite split about how North Korea should be handled. They jump back and forth from rapprochement to confrontation."
But the Saenuri Party may have overplayed its hand with North Korea. Shortly before Wednesday's vote, multiple government agencies revealed the spectacular escape from China of 13 North Korean restaurant workers, as well as the defection of a high-ranking espionage official last year. The authorities normally keep quiet about such cases. Critics chided the government for trying to win votes by showing that their sanctions policy against North Korea was bearing fruit.
Meanwhile, domestic concerns proved to be the most pressing issues to the South Korean electorate. Youth unemployment is nearing its highest level in the country since the end of the 1990s, when it was rocked by an economic crisis throughout Asia. Exports are dropping as business stalls in China. Inequality is growing. The country's debt amounts to more than 860 million euros.
And above all, demographic developments are darkening the country's future prospects. South Korea suffers from the lowest birthrate of all OECD member countries. Part of this has to do with systemic discrimination that pregnant women face from their employers.
"President Park is a great disappointment especially for women," said Kelly. "As South Korea's first female president, she could have finally accomplished something for women's rights." The opportunity though has been missed.
The president has been criticized following the vote from both left and right, who have viewed Saenuri's defeat as a rebuke of her work so far. Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the Minjoo Party, pledged to "change the course of this country's economy to a path of economic democracy and more inclusive growth."