Evaluating the Presidential Election – What the Labor Movement should take away from Park Geun-hye’s Victory

On December 19, the ruling conservative New Frontier Party (NFP) candidate Park Geun-hye was elected as South Korea's next president. Park received 51.6% of the popular vote beating opposition Democratic Unity Party (DUP) candidate Moon Jae-in by over 3% points and becoming the first presidential candidate to win with majority support since the introduction of direct elections in 1987.

The election results dealt a grave blow to the labor movement and other progressive forces in South Korea. Given popular dissatisfaction with the current Lee Myung-bak administration, it is hard for unionists and activists within and outside of Korea to come to terms with the fact that Park, the daughter of the 1960s and 70s dictator Park Chung-hee, won with such a wide margin. To contribute to the process of regrouping, this article analyzes the reasons for Park's victory and what the election results mean for left-progressive in Korea.

Two Candidate Race, High Voter Turnout

At 75.8%, the voting rate in this presidential election was the highest it has been since the beginning of the 21st century. Many commentators attribute the high turnout to the fierce competition leading up to the elections. A truly two-person race was held for the first time in Korean elections history, with the NFP uniting behind Park early on and the non-affiliated liberal Ahn Cheol-su and the Unified Progressive Party's (UPP) Lee Jung-hee dropping out to allow for the DUP's Moon Jae-in to stand alone against Park. Analysts believe that conservative voters were particularly motivated to go to the polls because of the threat presented by a united opposition. Older voters in particular, turnout in high numbers to vote for Park


The Liberals' Ineptitude

Nonetheless, Park's success should not be attributed primarily to voters' age or the sense of urgency felt by conservatives. One of the main reasons Park was able to win, despite considerable dissatisfaction with the Lee administration, is that she spoke to voters' immediate concerns and at the same time distinguished herself from Lee Myungbak.

Throughout the election race, Moon criticized the Lee administration for its role in increasing social polarization and its authoritarian style. In response, Park emphasized the economic and political inexperience of the liberal Roh Moohyun administration, which preceded the Lee administration, and of which Moon is a product. For the majority of Korean people, the problems of increasing social polarization and worsening living conditions are not so much associated with one or the other political party, but rather a fact of life that has been consistent over the last ten years. Moon Jae-in's election's campaign message, which emphasized the need for a change in the ruling party, did not speak to this experience. On the other hand, Park, In addition to emphasizing the failings of liberal administrations, spoke about expansion of the middle-class, increasing welfare and political reform, touching on issues close to people's everyday lives and highlighting they ways in which she is different from the widely disliked Lee. In addition, by invoking the myth of rapid economic development deeply associated with her father, Park was able to ride on many common people's desire for a solution to the current economic crisis.

Conversely, Moon failed to put forth a coherent message other than one about the need for an end of NFP rule. This ineptitude, as much as Park's successful messaging, has to be blamed as one of the main reasons for Park's success. In other recent elections, including the municipal government elections in June 2010 and the by-elections for Seoul mayor in 201l, the liberals were able to make gains due to widespread dissatisfaction with the Lee administration. In the lead up to the presidential election, however, liberal forces failed to critically examine the mistakes of past liberal administrations and instead put forth contradictory positions. The DUP, for instance criticized Lee for forcing passage of the U.S.-Korea FTA and called for its renegotiation, failing to acknowledge the it was Roh Moohyun who had pursued FTA negotiations in the first place. Having no plan for fundamental reform of South Korea's neoliberal, export-based, conglomerate-centered economic structure, or its unequal and dependent relationship with the United States, the DUP simply heaped criticism on Lee Myung-bak. As such, they failed completely in shaking the criticism of Roh Moohyun and his follows as economic and political amateurs and in presenting themselves as a real potential alternative to Lee.


Progressives' Ineffective Response

Sadly, rather than positioning themselves as critiques of both mainstream parties, the main 'so-called' progressive party, the UPP and many other progressives followed along the path carved by the DUP's ineptitude. Like the DUP, these forces repeated the hollow criticisms of Lee Myung-bak the individual, failing to put for a concrete and principled critique of the policies of the ruling class. Light parodies, like those likening Lee Myung-bak to a rat, and a few words here and there about workers' rights within the ruling-class dominated discussion of 'economic democratization' took the place of a fundamental critique of Korea's economic and political structure.

In addition, instead of explaining clearly how their platforms were different that Park Geun-hye's or what they would do to reform the government, the UPP focused on Park's family history and position. Making recourse to this vague sort of demonization removed from common people's everyday realities, UPP leaders and their supporters stayed within their comfort zone rather than capturing the attention of the wider public. Thus, the election campaign of Lee Jung-hee did little to expand their base of support.

This tendency for the main progressive party to follow in the pattern set by the liberal block is not new. Already in 2008 the Korean Democratic Labor Party (KDLP, the UPP's predecessor), put forth the platform of uniting with the liberal opposition against Lee Myung-bak. Instead of shining a light on the liberal's contradictions, they turned a half-blind eye to them, focusing on the goal of achieving a few seats in the National Assembly and expanding political power. Given this strategy, the KDLP and the UPP after it focused on mobilizing unions and other mass organizations -
their base of support - to protests focusing on issues set by the liberals, rather than focusing on campaigns around issues they thought should be central.

It is little known outside of progressive circles within South Korea, but two left-progressive candidates also ran on platforms criticizing the UPP's alliance - Soyeon Kim, a leader among female irregular workers, and Kim Sunja, a cleaning worker and former proportional representative candidate for the New Progressive Party, which split from the KDLP in 2009. These two candidates, however failed to rally together various other left-progressive forces and ended up with only .1% and .2% of the vote.

Progressives need to reflect on the fact that the message focusing on the faults of Lee Myung-bak did not resonate in a meaningful way to the majority of Korean, voters and thus was not enough to lead to a change in administration. The lesson here is that without putting forth a clear and principled analysis of Korea's economic and political circumstances, and putting forth an independent platform based on that analysis it is possible for progressives to appear as an alternative and therefore impossible for us to win wider grassroots support.


Regrouping for a renew Struggled in 2013

With the conservative turn by UPP and other progressive forces, the divisions within the progressive movement and Park's election, the labor and wider social justice movement in South Korea is at a low point. The despair felt by many has manifested in a chain of worker suicides in the wake of the elections.
Unfortunately, we cannot give ourselves much time to recover. It is likely that Park will push forward symbolic reforms during the transition period and in the beginning of her administration, that will distinguish her from Lee, such as measures to alleviate social polarization, support for the middle class and political reforms. Without a proper response, the labor movement and wider progressive forces are likely to lose even more ground in this situation. We need an awakening that will give us the clarity with which to respond.

In order to ready ourselves for a fight against this new government, our first task is to strength the KCTU. Next, activists who agree on the need to overcome deepened ideological divisions within the labor, focus on rebuilding or bases at the worksite level and strengthen the democratic labor movement need to regroup based on locality and industry. These activists need to take up the work of concretely analyzing the government and capital's strategy, in the context of economic crisis, in each industry and at each workplaces, and use this analysis as a basis for building a national front for a renewed struggle. In addition, we need to critically evaluate the old and worn methods of unionism and find means of reform.

Finally, given the loss of the workers' and wider progressive moment's traditional left identity after the formation of the Unified Progressive Party, we need now, more than ever, a return to a class-based politics located firmly in the struggle against new liberalism and for social and economic justice. Based on these principles, we must focus on discussion and debate at the local level to establish a unified strategy for confronting the Park administration.

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