The Korea Herald


Political parties ramp up campaign efforts amid shifting opinion polls

By Yonhap

Published : March 11, 2024 - 09:22

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The National Assembly building in western Seoul (gettyimagesBank) The National Assembly building in western Seoul (gettyimagesBank)

With only a month left before the April 10 parliamentary elections, political parties are unveiling various pork-barrel election pledges and intensifying efforts to secure key districts, as recent public opinion polls indicate a slight yet significant shift.

The quadrennial vote holds significant importance for the ruling People Power Party as a failure to regain a majority in the 300-member National Assembly could potentially render President Yoon Suk Yeol a lame duck for the next three years of his single five-year term.

In a positive sign for the ruling bloc, recent surveys conducted over the past two to three weeks have shown a rebound in Yoon's approval rating, following a year of persistently low ratings. The uptick comes amid concerns that the main opposition Democratic Party-controlled parliament might further hinder the implementation of his key agenda items.

According to a survey jointly conducted by Yonhap News Agency and Yonhap News TV and released Wednesday, Yoon's approval rating rose to 39 percent, marking the highest level since last May. The result could be attributed to public support for his firm stance against the ongoing walkout by trainee doctors protesting the government's plan to increase medical school quotas.

The survey also showed that if the vote were held tomorrow, the PPP and the DP would secure 33 percent and 26 percent of the vote, respectively. While support for PPP candidates remains unchanged from the previous survey a month ago, backing for DP candidates has slipped by 9 percentage points.

The results, falling outside the margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, indicate a widening gap between the two rival parties, which had previously been expected to compete neck and neck in the upcoming vote.

Observers attribute the DP's decline to an expanding factional rift sparked by disputes over candidate nominations, resulting in the departure of influential figures.

Non-mainstream DP members excluded or disadvantaged in the nomination process are defecting, citing unfair treatment and alleging favoritism toward those aligned with leader Lee Jae-myung.

"There may be various reasons for the decline in approval ratings, but internally, it appears that dissatisfaction with candidate nominations has had an impact," a DP official said on the condition of anonymity.

However, the PPP cannot expect an easy victory either.

Party leader Han Dong-hoon cautiously noted that while some opinion polls show a favorable shift for the party, it still trails behind the DP.

In an apparent move to garner support from voters, rival parties and newly created minor parties are rolling out a series of election pledges centered around solving the country's most pressing issues, including the ultra-low birth rate and expensive urban redevelopment plans.

To address the country's plummeting fertility rate, which hit a new record low of 0.65 in the fourth quarter of last year, both the PPP and the DP unveiled their respective proposals.

The PPP proposed a set of promises centering on fostering a better environment to raise children, including the introduction of new child care leave, allowing parents to take up to five days of paid leave annually when their child is sick.

The DP proposed various cash subsidies and perks aimed at enticing more couples to get married and have babies, along with a promise to provide free public rental homes to couples with two or more children.

Despite differences in their approaches to key issues, both parties appeared to share a common vision for revitalizing underdeveloped areas.

Both the PPP and the DP promised to bury existing railways in major cities underground and develop the newly created overland area.

Critics, however, raised concerns about the financial feasibility of the plans.

"Never have we seen election promises centering around massive redevelopment plans," said Lee Kwang-jae, the secretary-general of the Korea Manifesto Center, a political civic group.

Meanwhile, newly formed minor parties have endeavored to distinguish themselves with innovative strategies amid persistently low approval ratings.

According to the Yonhap survey, support for the Korea Innovation Party, a new party launched by Cho Kuk, the scandal-tainted former justice minister, came to 3 percent, followed by the New Reform Party with 2 percent and the New Future Party (Saemirae) created by Lee Nak-yon, a former prime minister who left the DP, with 1 percent.

The New Reform Party has unveiled a series of promises aimed at appealing to the younger generation, a demographic considered as swing voters.

Party leader Lee Jun-seok proposed abolishing free subway rides for seniors aged over 65 and expressed readiness to initiate discussions on abortion rights if his party secures a majority in the upcoming vote.

Meanwhile, the New Future Party has proposed reforms to the country's military drafting system.

Lee suggested raising the proportion of volunteers as a solution to the country's weakening military manpower.

"I think it is important to know how much money will be spent and where they plan to raise the funds. If they come up with a far-fetched plan, then that is just populism," said Shin Yul, a professor at Myongji University.

Yet, opinions are still divided on whether the new minor parties will emerge as an "alternative solution" in local politics, as they have failed to form the "big tent" party.

Lee's two parties split only 11 days after the merger, as the two leaders clashed over who should lead the election campaign and policymaking activities.

Observers view the 48 constituencies in Seoul as the primary battlegrounds that will ultimately determine the election outcome. Data suggests that the results in Seoul often mirror the overall election results.

In the previous election in 2020, the then ruling DP won 41 out of 49 seats, while the United Future Party, the PPP's former name, secured only eight seats. The DP eventually secured a landslide victory by taking 180 out of the 300 seats.

In 2016, the DP won 35 seats while the Saenuri Party, the PPP's former name, secured 12 seats, resulting in a closely contested yet victorious outcome for the DP.

Observers note that Seoul's political inclination tends to vary based on current issues rather than maintaining consistency, making it a region where public opinion holds significant sway over election outcomes.

Another key constituency is the Gyeyang-B district in Incheon, located west of Seoul, where DP leader Lee will compete against Won Hee-ryong, who previously served as the country's land minister.

Although the PPP anticipates a tight race, the district has traditionally been regarded as the DP's stronghold, having secured victory in seven consecutive elections, except for a by-election in 2010.

Candidate registration will take place over two days starting March 21, with official campaigning commencing March 28. Overseas voting is scheduled from March 27 to April 1, with early voting set for two days, starting April 5.

The National Assembly will consist of 243 directly contested seats and 57 proportional representation seats allocated to parties based on the total number of votes they receive. (Yonhap)