The current political situation in Korea resembles that of the U.S. in 2015-2016. The events that led up to the November 2016 presidential election are similar to what is now taking place in Korea. First, the opposition party is gaining strength. Recently, the liberal party has been issuing a series of tough statements, and is not even trying to hide its anger with the ruling party. The source of this continued hostility is the fact that the combative and hard-line conservative parties have more power than parties which are cooperative.
In 2016, a number of candidates from the then opposition Republican Party emerged in the U.S., which pushed the more moderate candidates out of the race and led to a contest between the two hard-line conservative Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, which ended with Trump’s victory. At the time, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, son of former President George H. W. Bush and the younger brother of former President George W. Bush, received the most attention, but his moderate stance and his opposition to strengthening immigration laws was ultimately overtaken by the anti-immigration Trump.
The second way that the Korean political situation recalls the 2016 U.S. presidential election involves the confrontation between the current president’s party supporters and the opposing Democratic Party. Former President Barack Obama was accused of being a Muslim, and the Korean President Moon Jae-in has been accused of being North Korean. Of course, South Korea would never have picked a North Korean candidate for president, and Obama was not a Muslim.
Nevertheless, the rumors about Obama did not fade among the opposition party. In a September 2015 CNN poll, 54% of Democratic respondents said Obama was a Christian, while 44% of Republican respondents claimed he was a Muslim. Surely, supporters had enormous respect for, and faith in President Obama, just as President Moon is receiving unwavering support from his supporters. Obama’s support rose even further at the end of his term. He left the White House with a high approval rating of 59%.
The third similarity involves the economy. The hot potato of the U.S. presidential election was the white blue-collar worker vote. These voters who symbolize the so-called Rust Belt were energized by Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-globalization slogans, and championed Trump during the Republican presidential race and the presidential election. However, the Democrats had originally focused on these white blue-collar workers. The Democratic Party is traditionally supported by urban workers, unions, highly educated and high-income people from the east and west coasts, and by minorities, while the Republican Party is traditionally supported by farmers and voters in the central, southern, and Midwest states, inland, and by conservative Christians.
The sharp increase in minimum wage brought on by the current government has also had serious adverse effects, one of which is that the self-employed are suffering. The majority party’s slogan has consistently been “the middle class and the people’s party,” but it is obvious from the policies that have been enacted that there is a backlash against efforts to revitalize the party.
The last similarity but not the least is the presence of inaccurate polls that do not reflect reality. Whether South Korea will experience inaccurate polling as well won’t be clear until the presidential election next April. In the U.S., most mainstream media and major polling agencies failed to predict Trump’s victory before and up to November 2016. In October 2016, one month before the presidential election, there was even an article by The Washington Post headlined, “The Likelihood of Donald Trump Winning Is Approaching Zero.” Many of the results from polls currently being taken in South Korea show that the ruling party ahead by a fair amount.
Even if such results remain steady until next April, the ruling party should not rest easy. The 2016 U.S. presidential election shows that even if the opposition becomes irrational and turns as hard core as ever, even if the president’s supporters remain firm in their support, and even if the poll results are not too bad, the more unexpected the results are, the more people will find it hard to live with.