June 13 is the day of local elections here in South Korea, but with all the breaking news on North Korea relations, the local campaigns for governor, mayor, city council member, education superintendent, and by-elections are not getting much attention. Still, the campaign trucks are as ubiquitous as ever, with their loudspeakers proclaiming party slogans and uniformed volunteers gesticulating the party numbers.
Since the first simultaneous nation-wide local elections in 1995, voter turn-out has been consistent at around 40 to 50%. The most apathetic seem to be in their 20s and 30s. In the most recent local elections, in 2014, 48.4% of 19–29 year-olds and 47.5% of 30–39 year-olds voted, compared to 60-70% of the population in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Considering that this was immediately after the Sewol Ferry disasters that April, the political cynicism of the younger population is disheartening.
But then again local election turnouts tend be low in other countries, ranging from 20% to 40% in the US and the UK, for example, depending on the city and region. Here, the popular protests of 2016 and the landmark presidential election of 2017 were exercises in public political participation that led to tangible results. Over 20% of the population have already cast their votes in the two optional early voting days. With the liberal party at the national helm, and the air of optimism around North Korea relations, there may be more cause for the young (and old) to believe that their votes can indeed make a difference in their communities.
Here are some notable trends for this election.
- Shades of blue. Current polls indicate that the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) leads in all the mayoral and gubernatorial races except for three. The city of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province (the two most solid conservative regions) are sticking with the leading opposition, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP). Jeju Island seems set to re-elect its independent governor.
- Moon’s coat tails. The extraordinary North-South summits and the NK-US summit due tomorrow (the day before the elections) are keeping President Moon’s ratings in the 70% range. This can’t but help the Democratic Party, to say the least, but the opposition is quick to point out the majority party’s complacency.
- The “negatives” (“네거티브”). The hottest race is that for governor of Gyeonggi-do. Nam Gyung-pil (LKP) has accused Lee Jae-myung (DPK) of character defects, releasing audio clips of him swearing at his brother and sister-in-law. Lee’s family strife is old news and he had previously apologized for it, but Nam and LKP brought out the tapes in defiance of court rulings, citing the public’s “right to know”. Lee is facing further revelations surrounding an alleged affair with an actress. Despite all this, the popular mayor of Seongnam and former presidential candidate remains ahead in the latest polls, and by a wide margin. In South Gyeongsang-do, meanwhile, the DPK’s much maligned Kim Kyung-soo (of the Druking scandal) seems likewise safe, with between 46% to 56% of the vote in latest polls; the LKP candidate is polling in the mid to high 20s. And remember all the anti-DPK #MeToo momentum from earlier this year? Apparently the voters are differentiating between the accused individuals and the party as a whole. In South Chungcheong-do where the former governor and presidential candidate Ahn Hee-jeong was accused of sexual assault, the polls still point to overwhelming support for the DPK candidate. But the party’s support is partly explained by the general unfavorability of the leading opposition party.
- “Hong Joon-pyo passing”. Hong Joon-pyo, the LKP chairman, is reportedly being asked to not show up for the local rallies, as the local candidates fear Hong’s inflammatory rhetoric and consistent cynicism on NK relations may do more to hurt than help their chances. In Busan, Ulsan, and South Chungcheong-do, the LKP candidates themselves did not show up to the rallies Hong attended. Hong officially announced that he won’t be attending the campaign rallies anymore, as his support may distract from policy platforms. But many detect that the party itself is splitting on the inside. Major shifts in party alignments are soon to come.
- Race for Second. With the likely winners already predicted, the opposition parties are racing to be second in line. Getting to that second place is vital as it would set that party up as the leading opposition party to consolidate rightist and centrist voters against the current majority party. The most critical race will be the Seoul mayoral race with the current mayor Park Won-soon (DPK) polling 35% higher than the second in line Kim Moon-soo (LKP). Kim and Ahn Cheol-soo (a former presidential candidate of the Bareun Party) are getting 17.3% and 13.7% support respectively. Incidentally, both Kim and Ahn’s election posters have the exact same slogan: “바꾸자 서울” (translated as “Change Up Seoul” and “Let’s Change Seoul” respectively.)
- Women’s representation. There are hardly any woman represented in the major cities and regions this election cycle. Park Seon-young, a female candidate for Seoul’s Education Superintendant is running against the incumbent Cho Hee-yeon, though she is unlikely to pose a serious challenge. Meanwhile, there are two female candidates for the Seoul mayoral election: Kim Jin-suk of the Minjung Party and Shin Ji-ye of the Green Party. Both are unlikely to win the race, but Shin who promotes herself as a feminist is clearly succeeding in getting public and media attention with her widely criticized poster in which she is perceived as looking downwards. Some perceive the 27-year-old’s gaze as a sign of confidence, others as rude arrogance (“개시건방진”). Her bespectacled eyes on posters and banners have been subjected to unusually high rates of vandalism. Shin calls it a clear case of misogyny and has asked for investigations.