The Grand National Party was coming to terms with its sound defeat in the Seoul mayoral by-election on Wednesday, which was widely seen as a vote of no confidence in the political establishment.
One senior GNP figure who played a key role in the party's campaign on Wednesday said, "Some random soldering was never going to work when the dam was crumbling." And a key figure in the opposition camps said, "It was a winning race from the start."
A main reason for the GNP’s defeat was the growing gap between rich and poor and a widespread feeling that none of the spoils of Korea's burgeoning economy are trickling down to ordinary people. Last year, Korea's GDP rose 6.2 percent, the highest in eight years, but the relative share of labor, an index for how well the wealth has been distributed, was 59.2 percent, the lowest in six years. While the national wealth grew, the share of ordinary workers dwindled.
In the 1990s Korea's middle class, mostly comprised of salaried workers, was 75 percent, but this has fallen to 66-67 percent. At the same time the poor class is growing. Last year, the number of households living in poverty surpassed three million for the first time, and the percentage of the poor is now double the OECD average of 10.6 percent.
Korean voters tend to vote for opposition parties or progressive politicians when they want better welfare, equality or change. In that sense, progressive civic activist Park Won-soon, who had backing of all opposition parties, naturally had the upper hand.
Younger voters played a key role. According to exit polls, Park had some two-thirds support from voters in their 20s to 40s. Growing discontent with high university tuition fees and youth unemployment, and dissatisfaction with the rising cost of education for children and soaring property prices alongside declining job security were reflected in the election results.
But it was a defeat not merely for the GNP but also the main opposition Democratic Party. Despite being the biggest opposition party, the DP was unable to field a candidate who stood any chance of winning and ended up supporting an independent, who could not be persuaded to join the party even after it had endorsed him. This points to a profound distrust in existing political parties, which propelled a former human rights lawyer and civic activist to the top job in Seoul.
There were also blunders in the GNP which only confirmed voters' mistrust. Experts said a scandal involving President Lee Myung-bak's plans for a private retirement complex could not have erupted at a worse time, reinforcing as it did the image of the current administration as a government for the rich. The GNP admits it was derailed by revelations that candidate Na Kyung-won is a patient at a super-exclusive dermatology clinic only open to those who can afford the W100 million (US$1=W1,132) membership.
Park's campaign team, by contrast, emphasized his friendly, ordinary image from the start, portraying the ruling party as a small club of the haves pitched against the vast majority of the have-nots. Passionate support from academics, celebrities, and the social media also played a key role. Park managed to raise W3.885 billion in election funds in just 47 hours, while Na had to plead for money until the very last minute.