Young Voters Unimpressed with Presidential Candidates

  • By Nina Pasquini, Chosun Ilbo intern reporter

    March 08, 2022 12:55

    The two presidential frontrunners have been courting young voters, who are considered swing voters critical for victory in the March 9 election. But many young voters who face critical issues such as high unemployment, soaring housing prices, and rising inequality say they are frustrated with the candidates' approaches, and the candidates prioritize flashy proposals and mudslinging over serious engagement with the issues.

    "We feel that we're voting for the lesser evil. That's not what an election is supposed to be," said Lee So-jeong, who is in her 30s. "Ideally, you have a lot of options, and you can think, 'I like his or her campaign. I feel like this is a person who could change the future of Korea, so I'm going to vote for him or her.' But these candidates, either one, there will be no real change."

    Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Minjoo Party, speaks during a campaign rally in Seoul on Tuesday. /Newsis

    The two leading candidates -- Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Minjoo Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party -- have been polling in a dead heat in the week leading up to the election.

    To win the favor of young people, who make up about 34 percent of all eligible voters, Lee and Yoon have made pledges such as raising the salaries of conscripted soldiers, but some young voters see these promises as quick-fix solutions rather than policies that deal with the fundamental problems young people are facing.

    Lee Soo-jin, who is in her 20s, said, "In this election, the candidates are really focused on gaining support from people in their 20s and 30s, which is good for drawing attention to young people's issues. But sometimes I feel that it goes a little too far and becomes populist -- they say they will do this or that just because it will be popular among young voters."

    Unemployment among Koreans aged 15-29 is nearly 25 percent, and the average price of an apartment in Seoul has doubled over the last five years. In light of these economic troubles, many young people feel uncertain about their futures. From 2016 to 2020, while the overall number of suicides dropped from 13,020 to 12,776, the number of suicides in their 20s jumped 32 percent, from 1,137 to 1,501.

    And as the cost of living continues to rise, Korea's birthrate is dropping steeply. In 2020, the birthrate was 0.81 births per woman, its lowest level in Korea's history and the lowest birthrate worldwide.

    But neither Lee or Yoon have put forward substantive policies to address these issues, according to Park Sang-in, a professor at Seoul National University. "They are focusing on very small, specific policies," he said, citing Lee's proposed policy of government-funded hair loss treatments and Yoon's pledge to abolish the Ministry of Family and Gender Equality. "These are not helpful for fundamental structural problems," Park said. "But if you address the structural issues in which many of Korea's social and economic problems are rooted, you have to contradict the interests of the establishment, and they don't want to confront those issues."

    Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate of the opposition People Power Party, reacts during a campaign rally in Jeju on Tuesday. /Yonhap

    Some young voters also feel that the candidates' proposals encourage polarization. A graduate student in Seoul said she thinks that many of these proposals are not just targeted toward young people but toward young men.

    "I worry about both candidates, because I think both of them are excluding young women from the election," said the student, who requested anonymity. "There are so many policies from candidates who say: 'If I become president, I will do this for young men's sake.' But no one talks about what we are going to do for young women."

    The election has also been characterized by scandals, personal attacks, and allegations of corruption. Young voters say they are frustrated with the scandals because they distract from serious consideration of the issues they are facing.

    "When I was watching the presidential debate, I couldn't tell how much the candidates knew about the issues and assess their ideas for fixing them, because instead of talking about the issues, they were talking about -- 'your wife did this,' and so on," said a college student. "I couldn't understand why they were fighting like that on TV, in front of the whole world."

    The negativity and personal attacks have made the two candidates some of the most unpopular in the history of Korea's democracy. Throughout the campaign, surveys have showed both Lee and Yoon drawing disapproval ratings of around 60 percent.

    With the two major parties offering wildly unpopular candidates, minor party candidates have become more attractive. But since they have little chance of winning the election, some young voters are struggling to decide if voting for them is worth it.

    "For my short-term benefit, I know I should vote for Lee or Yoon, since they have a chance of winning," Lee So-jeong said. "But if I think in the long term, do I really have to vote for these people? Or do I vote for a better future?"

    Korea's party system is ill-equipped to represent the interests of young voters, said Lee Sook-jong, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

    Many young voters are driven less by ideology, Lee said, and have diverse opinions that fall on both sides of party lines. "There is some confusion about what exactly the younger voters want, so the candidates are promising things like money and cheaper housing, trying to ease the disappointment and disillusionment of younger generations," she said. "But younger generations don't care about ideology as much. Instead, they want secure jobs and better wages, and a fair and just system."

    The graduate student, for example, said her opinions on economic and social issues are aligned with two different parties. "I still don't know who to vote for because it depends on what issues I care more about and prioritize," she said.

    Certain reforms could allow the electoral system to better represent voters who are dissatisfied with the two major parties, Lee Sook-jong said. For example, 253 out of the total 300 seats in the National Assembly are elected by simple majority rule, which gives an advantage to the two major parties. Changing this policy could help minor parties to win seats so that more diverse voters are represented.

    But beyond that, candidates of future elections should discourage the polarization and division that have characterized this election, said Shin Gi-wook, a professor at Stanford University. "I expect a lot of tension and fighting after the election, whoever wins," Shin said. "This has become a time of a lot of polarization along ideology, gender, generation. We can't continue like this. No matter who wins, you have to stop diving into 'us' and 'them.'"

    Dissatisfaction with the candidates is not stopping voters from participating in the election. With over 36.93 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots over last Friday and Saturday, early voting has seen record turnout.

    Even though young voters may struggle to pick their candidate this year, they will still vote while hoping that the choice is easier next time, many said.

    "I wish a candidate in a future election could stand for the whole population, not only for males, or only for the old or young generations, or only for conservatives or liberals," said the graduate student. "In Korea, we tend to switch administrations from conservative to liberal -- it goes back and forth. But I wish there could be a president from a neutral position. I wish that kind of thing could happen in Korea."

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