By Victor Cha and Ellen Kim
South Korea elected Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party as the 18th president of the country this week. This was a historic election.
First, she became the first female president in the country’s history and the first female head of state in Northeast Asia. Second, she is the first Korean president-elect since democratization in 1987 to win the election with a majority of the votes (Park received 51.6 percent of the votes).
Her father, Park Chung-hee, was a former president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979. Park Geun-hye, as a teenager, served as First Lady after her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was killed in 1974 in a failed assassination attempt by a North Korean sympathizer. The race was extremely close, according to polling, such that analysts could not predict a winner in the last days of the campaign. Despite single-digit temperatures, voter turnout was 75.8 percent, the highest since the 1997 presidential election.
The election outcome was a surprise in a sense. While the race was considered to be a statistical tie in the days before the election, pundits believed that the dropping of the third presidential candidate on November 23 relieved the progressive camp of a potential split in their voting bloc, enough to push them over the edge.
Park, toward the end of the campaign, also experienced some disarray in her camp’s leadership circles. Moreover, given the unpopularity of the current Lee Myung-bak administration, many believed that some of this would tarnish another conservative candidate’s presidency. Park ran a disciplined campaign, did not step out of her natural calm and collected demeanor, and prevailed by a small but decisive margin of 3.6 percentage points.
Explanations for the outcome are complex. There is a theory that South Korea has a silent majority of more conservative-leaning voters who swayed the election. But this is probably only part of the answer. The election was about whom the people believed had the best economic vision for the country. Park put forward a vision of “compassionate growth” that promised to reinvigorate 5 percent annual growth, but also a vision that leaves fewer people behind and that raises employment. One also has to imagine that North Korea’s missile launch last week could have hurt the progressive camp’s chances as they trumpeted a return to the proactive engagement policies of previous progressive presidencies.
Dr. Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on twitter @vcgiants . Ellen Kim is assistant director of the Korea Chair at CSIS, where she is also a fellow. To learn more, watch the recent event hosted at CSIS on the election results featuring experts from CSIS, CFR and KEI here and read their original CSIS Critical Questions here.
Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government at Georgetown University.