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What's at stake in South Korea's election

Published 04/03/2024, 02:10 AM
Updated 04/03/2024, 07:13 AM
© Reuters. South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol gives three cheers during a ceremony of the 105th anniversary of the March 1st Independence Movement Day in Seoul, South Korea, March 1, 2024.    REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool/File Photo

By Hyunsu Yim

SEOUL (Reuters) -Campaigning for South Korea's legislative election is in full swing ahead of an April 10 vote that will decide the make-up of its 300-strong National Assembly. The assembly will set the agenda largely for domestic politics for the next four years. 

WHY DOES THE ELECTION MATTER?

The election comes nearly two years after conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol won the 2022 presidential election defeating Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party by 0.73% - the slimmest margin in South Korean history. 

Yoon has suffered from low approval ratings for months and will further lose momentum if his People Power Party performs poorly in the election or is unable to claim a majority in the parliament, currently dominated by the Democratic Party.

"With the opposition-led parliament, it has been hard to make a policy push or achievement over the last two years. Without change during the rest of his term, it would be extremely hard to do his job," said Lee Jun-han, professor of political science at Incheon National University. 

Analysts said Seoul's foreign policy, which has sought closer ties with Washington and Tokyo under Yoon, will not change significantly whoever wins. South Korea's powerful presidency leaves little room for parliament to weigh in on the president's foreign policy agenda.

WHAT ARE THE KEY ISSUES?

In recent polls, the cost of living and high food inflation have emerged as key issues among voters. The price tag of green onions has made headlines after Yoon's visit to a supermarket.

Another issue is the prolonged doctors' strike by trainee doctors and some senior doctors. Yoon showed the first signs of flexibility in his medical reform plan this week.

Polls showed increasing public support for a compromise between the doctors and the government which plans to increase medical school admissions by 2,000 starting 2025.

Political parties have also vowed to tackle the fertility crisis with measures such as public housing and tax breaks. South Korea has the world's lowest fertility rate, or the average number of children born to a woman, and data shows it is likely to fall to 0.68 in 2024, past the figure of 0.78 in 2022, which was already a record low. 

Corruption remains a major issue. Likely flashpoints are the ambassador to Australia who resigned last month amid controversy over his appointment while being under a corruption investigation and the First Lady's "Dior bag scandal". Main opposition leader Lee Jae-myung is facing trials over charges including bribery which will see him appear in court during the election cycle.

HOW DOES THE ELECTION SYSTEM WORK?

South Korea has a partly proportional representation system for its legislative elections which means voters will cast one ballot for district representatives, who have 254 seats in the parliament. They will also vote for a political party which will decide the share of the 46 proportional representation seats.

The rise of third parties in recent polls has come as a surprise in the fourth-largest economy in Asia where politics is often dominated by the two major parties. 

More than 20% of voters said they would vote for a third party launched by former justice minister Cho Kuk via the proportional representation vote, according to a Gallup poll released on March 29. Cho is also facing jail time in a fraud case.

© Reuters. South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol gives three cheers during a ceremony of the 105th anniversary of the March 1st Independence Movement Day in Seoul, South Korea, March 1, 2024.    REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool/File Photo

Hong Won-pyo, a 67-year-old from Seoul, said he would vote for a third party as a protest vote because he is dissatisfied with both the ruling People Power Party and the main opposition Democratic Party.

"I don't agree with voting for either of the two main parties just because you dislike the other."

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