Election Defeat Complicates Park’s Plans in South Korea

Election Defeat Complicates Park’s Plans in South Korea
South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivers a speech at Gyeryongdae, South Korea's main military compound, Gyeryong, March 4, 2016 (Pool photo by Chung Sung-Jun via AP).

South Korea’s ruling conservative Saenuri Party is looking for answers after a crushing loss earlier this month in legislative elections. Led by President Park Geun-hye, the Saenuri Party managed to win only 122 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats, falling far short of the majority that many predicted. The opposition fared well, with the liberal Minjoo Party winning 123 seats and the left-wing People’s Party winning 38 seats. The National Assembly is now effectively deadlocked, with opposition parties controlling Park’s ability to pass legislation.

Her party’s loss is a stunning reversal and will reshape the political landscape in South Korea and constrain Park’s ability to pursue several domestic initiatives, such as labor reforms and attempts to deregulate the economy. In the election’s aftermath, the head of the Saenuri Party, Kim Moo-sung, resigned, stating that the party “humbly accepts the judgment of the people.” The results are a sign of public resentment of Park’s tight control over her party and rejection of her set of ambitious reforms aimed at kick-starting South Korea’s sluggish economy.

A range of economic factors is to blame, including lagging domestic consumption, weakening exports and falling labor productivity. Making matters worse is the economic slowdown in China, South Korea’s largest trading partner. These economic troubles have frustrated the Park administration and undermined its ability to maintain support at the polls. Under Park, annual GDP growth dropped precipitously in South Korea with a decrease of nearly a quarter from 2014, when growth stood at 3.3 percent, to 2015, when it was 2.5 percent. The economic downturn hurt South Korean households, with per capita gross national income dropping 2.6 percent from $28,071 in 2014 to $27,340. Youth unemployment is also growing, with 12.5 percent of South Koreans between the ages of 15 and 29 left jobless and without the prospects of finding permanent work.

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