South Korea votes in high-stakes polls

Ruling party needs big win to push through stalled reform Bills

Supporters of South Korea's main opposition Minjoo Party rallying support during an election campaign yesterday.
Supporters of South Korea's main opposition Minjoo Party rallying support during an election campaign yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

South Koreans vote today in an election that the ruling party needs to win big in order to have any chance of pushing through badly needed reform Bills to tackle issues such as high youth unemployment.

While the Saenuri Party is expected to win at least half of the 300 National Assembly seats, it may fall short of the three-fifths super majority needed to unilaterally pass the Bills, according to analysts and opinion polls.

Legislative gridlock has been a huge stumbling block for President Park Geun Hye and her administration since she took office in 2013, with less than one-third of all proposed Bills passed due to constant objections from the opposition.

The ruling party holds only half of the 292 filled seats in the National Assembly, short of the three-fifths super majority. The result is that key Bills including labour reforms and measures to revitalise the economy have been left to languish in the national legislature.

Four polls released on Sunday show that the Saenuri Party could win between 157 and 175 seats, the main opposition Minjoo Party 83 to 100 seats, and the splinter People's Party 28 to 32 seats.

Political science professor Lee Nae Young at Korea University said Saenuri will most likely win more than 150 seats, but fall short of 180.

If so, the continued deadlock in the new assembly will make it difficult for Ms Park to deliver on her election pledges in the last two years of her five-year term, Professor Lee added.

Her stalled economic revitalisation package includes measures to allow bosses to switch older workers to temporary contracts so that the savings can be used to hire young staff, or to hire contract workers for longer periods.

However, critics and labour unions have said that such measures would only benefit corporations while employees have to settle for low wages and face job insecurity.

Many voters are also vexed by the controversies roiling the various parties since early this year, when internal conflicts drove politician Ahn Cheol Soo to leave the Minjoo Party to form the new People's Party. More recently, internal feuds have broken out over the nomination of candidates.

Youth participation in voting is not expected to be high, even though younger South Koreans have often voiced frustration at the difficulty of finding good jobs amid the bleak economic climate. Youth unemployment hit a record high of 12.5 per cent in February.

"People, especially the young, see no point in voting because they don't feel they have the power to change the political landscape," said research fellow Lee Jae Hyon from The Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Some analysts and voters see the new People's Party offering some hope if it manages to win at least 30 seats. Stalled Bills can be passed if the Saenuri Party can win People's Party's support, said Prof Lee.

Computer programmer Kim Dong Gun, 33, said he was disappointed with the Saenuri Party for not spending enough on welfare and for mishandling incidents like the Sewol ferry sinking tragedy in April 2014.

"I hope the People's Party can get more than 30 seats. I think they can better represent the people," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline 'South Korea votes in high-stakes polls'. Subscribe