Party politics in South Korea after electoral “Judgment Day”

On 10 April, the people of South Korea passed a harsh judgment on the existing political forces, in the country’s 22nd general election. The governing party was under scrutiny. Real progressive parties were also scrutinized.

Im Se-woong, Political journalist of Maeil Labor News

On 10 April, the people of South Korea passed a harsh judgment on the existing political forces, in the country’s 22nd general election.

The governing People Power Party (PPP) was under scrutiny. Out of the 300 National Assembly seats, the PPP won only 108. A strong sentiment that the incompetence and corruption of the regime and the ruling party needed to be addressed swept the election scene. The fact that the newly formed opposition Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP) generated 12 lawmakers in the election amply illustrates this sentiment. The RKP clearly advocated for an early end to the regime, stating, three years the remaining term of the Yoon Seok-yeol administration is too long. The party was hastily formed a month before the election, centred around Cho Kuk, who served as minister of justice in the previous Democratic Party government 2019.

Progressive parties were also scrutinized. The Justice Party, which was the third-largest political party and has often referred to itself as the oldest brother of progressive politics, failed to secure any seats, resulting in its exclusion from the National Assembly. The Green Party Korea, despite partnering with the Justice Party, did not achieve a significant approval rating. The Labor Party made only a minimal impact. In contrast, the Progressive Party survived, bolstering its organizational strength outside the National Assembly and managing to win three seats in coalition with the Democratic Party of Korea. However, it is believed that South Korea’s 27-year experiment with progressive politics, beginning with the founding of the People’s Victory 21 Party in 1997, has come to an end. It seems that "Progressive Party Movement Season 1" has concluded.

Having been judged and found wanting, the ruling PPP and progressive political parties now face an existential crisis. In such times, fundamental questions arise, such as: What are the core identities of conservatism and progressivism? The PPP is experiencing internal divisions over conservative values. Meanwhile, progressive parties are rallying under the banner of “Progressive Party Movement Season 2,” striving to restore a labour-centred identity.


The surviving Democratic Party poised to seize control amidst division in the People Power Party

The Democratic Party (DP) survived this electoral “Judgment Day” and now stands ready to lead the nation, prioritizing the wills of the people. The 22nd National Assembly is anticipated to be under the leadership of the DP. In the Korean National Assembly, when a party holds more than three-fifths of the seats, it can pass bills that might otherwise require compromise with opposition parties.

But if the minority ruling party, in this case the PPP, aligns precisely with the Presidential Office, it can retain the initiative by leveraging the president's veto power as a means of check. Should the president veto a bill passed in the National Assembly, led by the opposition party, the bill must return to the Assembly and garner the consent of more than 200 of the 300 lawmakers. In essence, without the opposition party enticing at least eight PPP lawmakers who do not follow the government's national administration policy and party leadership, progress within this confrontational structure seems unlikely.

At this juncture, the most attention-grabbing issue in the 22nd National Assembly is the division within the PPP. Various opinions may emerge regarding whether to support the current administration or distance itself from it in anticipation of a new regime. Typically, when the ruling party loses an election, it adopts a strategy of distancing itself from the current administration in preparation for the next one. In 2011, when the Grand National Party lost in by-elections, Park Geun-hye, then chairwoman of the emergency committee, changed the party's name to the Saenuri Party for differentiation and prioritized welfare policies. Later, the Saenuri Party succeeded in regaining power, and Park was elected president.

Indeed, voices criticizing the government are already emerging from influential lawmakers within the PPP. Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, widely regarded as a next presidential candidate, was featured in various media outlets right after the general election stating: “The administration of state affairs does not meet the expectations of the people.” He emphasized the need for the president to adjust the tone of state administration and foster a constructive relationship between the party and the government.

Representative Ahn has also vetoed bills that were passed by the president with the leading efforts of the ruling party, and openly voted for bills opposed by the PPP’s official platform, citing them as “the will of the people.” Attention is now focused on whether this voice will gain mainstream traction within the party.


Progressive parties promoting labour-centredness as the value of progress

Progressive parties do not have a significant presence in the 22nd National Assembly. What is significant for them now is increasing their presence.

The Justice Party (JP), which self-describes as the oldest brother of progressive politics, has largely lost all the essential elements that enable a political party to function: power, money, and organization. Failing to win even a single seat in the National Assembly has stripped the party of its power. Additionally, while running the party, the JP accumulated 3.2 billion won (23 million USD) in debt. The number of members participating in the party's decision-making has also dramatically decreased. In the election for party leader in 2019, about 20,000 people voted, but in 2024, when the party was pushed out of the National Assembly, only 4,400 members took part in the party leader election. The JP has declared its intention to rebuild the party by emphasizing "labour-centredness." According to the party, this means a systemic transformation in which the irrationalities of capitalism, both ideologically and policy-wise, are replaced with a labour-centred society. In this society, workers and those dedicated to workers' politics would play crucial roles. The party pledged to unite with local people who raise their voices in the field and to form grassroots organizations.

When the JP emphasizes "labour-centeredness," public scrutiny often falls on its internal composition: The party has faced criticism for not appointing any former labour activists to key positions. For example, in the 21st general election, which saw strong support for progressive politics following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye in 2017, the JP filled its top two proportional representation seats with young women recruited from outside the labour movement.

This has already become controversial within labour circles. Whenever the fruits of the labour movement were distributed, criticism arose that dedicated labour activists were being ignored. In particular, young women recruited from outside emphasized youth politics and feminism but failed to properly align with the labour agenda. This led to narrow and distorted debates about whether the JP is a workers' party or a feminist party. The party has internally reflected on this issue and decided to reorient itself around labour activists committed to the party.

For the Progressive Party (PP), which has "swapped players" in the National Assembly with the Justice Party, the main challenge is securing its autonomy. The party managed to win three seats through an electoral alliance with the Democratic Party (DP), highlighting its difficulty in producing lawmakers independently. In Korea, a party needs an approval rating of over 3% to secure proportional representation seats. However, the PP's independent approval rating was below 3%, forcing it to rely on the DP to obtain its lawmakers.

This dependence has sparked criticism, with some dubbing it "progress permitted by the Democratic Party." Critics argue that the PP can only voice its opinions when the DP allows it, making it difficult for the PP to oppose the DP. For instance, during the electoral coalition, the PP agreed to promote the early construction of an airport in Busan and reduce the number of proportional-representation seats (the party-list candidates currently account for 47 seats, compared with the 253 constituency-based seats), both of which were contrary to the party's original stance.

The PP emphasizes the effectiveness of direct workers' politics, aiming to address various criticisms through tangible actions. The party asserts that two-thirds of its members are workers, including construction workers, supermarket employees, and irregular school workers. The PP also claims that former-workers-turned-lawmakers, who have amplified these workers' voices, are now active in the political arena. The party is committed to revitalizing other progressive parties by inspiring them with the vision of a better world.


Balance required between labour-centredness and other progressive values

Leadership will naturally come to labour when dedicating itself to other agendas

However, concerns have emerged regarding the emphasis on labour-centredness in the present era. Researchers commonly argue that such a focus may encounter resistance in modern society, characterized by diverse values and orientations. They highlight that while labour-centredness is vital for keeping class privilege in check, it is sometimes perceived as being prioritized over other progressive agendas, potentially impeding its expansion. This is a point that progressive parties, which are seen to have weakened their influence due to their failure to strike a balance between strengthening various progressive values and enhancing labour-centredness, should keep in mind.

Researchers assert that progressive forces should collaborate with gender, environmental, and minority movements to establish common goals. Those involved in progressive political-party movements and research suggest that labour should actively engage with other agendas in this cooperative process. They argue that leadership is required even in horizontal solidarity; given the labour movement's superior organizing power compared to other movements, it is well-positioned to naturally assume a leading role in fostering solidarity.

Im Se-woong is Political journalist of Maeil Labor News.

The views in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.