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  • Hanna Bajwa

Moon Jae-in's Success - Democracy during a crisis

South Korea is one of the world’s youngest democracies, and the first country to hold a national election during the Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus was able to side-line previous issues such as the weak economy, government corruption and North-South relations in a deep freeze which previously caused many to think President Moon’s party would lose. However South Korea’s effective response to coronavirus turned many voters to support Moon and his party. The country has managed to bring the number of daily infections from 900, at its peak in late February, to fewer than 30. Despite the risk of coronavirus, the voter turnout was the highest in nearly three decades. Moon’s party, along with a small satellite party, won 180 seats in the 300-seat national assembly, the biggest majority any party has won since the country’s transition to democracy in 1987. His so-called "coronavirus diplomacy" - such as recent publicity on his bilateral phone calls with at least 20 state leaders regarding epidemic response - boosted Koreans' confidence in his administration, said Minseon Ku, a politics scholar at Ohio State University in the United States.

The government put in an immense amount of preparation in enabling 44 million eligible voters to cast their ballots. South Korea has never delayed an election, even during the Korean War or the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 (swine flu) influenza, so it is not surprising they went ahead with this national election. The measures taken in polling stations were immense. Voters had to clean their hands with sanitizer, wear face masks and plastic gloves, stand at least one metre (3ft) apart, and have their temperatures taken. Anyone with a temperature 37.5C had to cast their vote in separate booths that were then disinfected after each use. Even those who had been tested positive for coronavirus were able to vote at certain times and at specially designated polling stations. Hospitalized patients of the virus were given the choice to vote by mail. Hundreds of patients with mild symptoms were allowed to vote in advance.

Moon's Democratic party and its allies took 180 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, while the opposition United Future Party (UFP) won 103, the worst result since 1960. A former Prime Minister and parliamentary floor leader were both ousted from the National Assembly. The UFP failed to ‘rebrand’ itself after the collapse of the previous conservative administration and impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. Anti-North Korea conservatives had dominated politics, the news media and other elite groups in South Korea during the decades following the 1950-53 Korean War. It was not until 1998 that South Korea elected its first left-leaning president, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung. Mr. Kim was succeeded by another liberal, Roh Moo-hyun, President from 2003 to 2008.​ But neither Mr. Kim nor Mr. Roh could obtain the type of parliamentary majority that Mr. Moon just earned.

Unusual for Korean presidents, whose popularity tends to precipitously decline as their terms proceed, Moon will be in a stronger political position during the last half of his presidency. The virus has given him the opportunity to rebuild the economy. Due to such a landslide win, Moon should be able to enact reforms long advocated by the left but until now politically unattainable. His administration might also pursue tax and regulatory reforms designed to address income inequality and the disproportionate economic influence of conglomerates within the South Korean economy. Moreover, Moon and his party are likely to pursue their long-standing legislative goals, such as judicial reform and anti-discrimination laws. In foreign policy, the Moon administration has received a boost from Covid-19 diplomacy thanks to its rapid response to the pandemic, and opportunities to export test kits and personal protective equipment. Regardless of this, long standing issues with North Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China, remain present. Moon administration efforts to open inter-Korean economic cooperation or further deterioration in Japan-South Korea relations might constitute a further drag on U.S.-South Korea alliance cooperation which has pre-existing difficulties.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to upend politics in many nations. In South Korea the health-care crisis has rejuvenated Moon Jae-in’s presidency. Furthermore, South Korea’s stringent safety measures and assurances in place for citizens to be able to safely vote should be replicated across the world to ensure the wheels of democracy can keep on turning.

Image - Flickr (Republic of Korea)

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