After decades of army rule, South Korea transitioned into an electoral democracy following its first direct presidential elections in 1987. The country’s president is elected every five years and only serves a single term in office. Elections are generally free and fair. In the National Assembly, South Korea’s single legislative chamber, MPs are elected for four-year terms. In the latest parliamentary elections in April 2012, the Saenuri Party won 152 seats while the Democratic United Party (DUP), the second largest political party, secured 127 seats. The Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun-hye won the December 2012 presidential elections, making her South Korea’s first female president.
In March 2014, a new opposition party was founded following a merger of the DUP and
members of the New Political Vision Party (NPVP). Until that date, the NPVP was still in their founding stage and thus never formally established. The newly founded New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is now the biggest opposition party.
The June and July 2014 by-elections were seen as a test for Park Geun-hye’s popularity. Following a deadly ferry accident that had claimed the lives of hundreds of school children just two months earlier, most candidates campaigned on public safety issues. Opponents of President Park accused her and the Saenuri party members of mishandling the rescue operations. Despite concerns, the ruling party managed to gather wide support from the voters and emerged as the winner of the by-elections, now controlling 158 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly.
Generally the electoral process has constantly improved since 2002, including a decline in influence of money-politics, caused by high costs for contending in the elections. However, bribery and influence peddling are still deeply rooted in political life. In recent years, cases in which candidates tried to rig internal party primaries or bribed contestants to withdraw from the race have again highlighted how common corruption still is in South Korea’s politics.
South Korea has a large number of NGOs, social welfare organisations and human rights groups which are able to operate freely and openly. Additionally, the countries’ strong trade unions advocate for workers issues however; in the verge of recent economic downturn their strength has slightly diminished over the last years. The ability to stabilise the economy will be the major challenge for President Park and her Saenuri Party and be the ultimate test for the success of her term in office.