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Dictator’s daughter takes over a divided South Korea

No surprises in South Korea: Wednesday’s presidential election resulted in a narrow but expected victory for the centre-right candidate, Park Geun-hye, who will become the country’s first female president. She defeated the centre-left’s Moon Jae-in with 51.6% of the vote to 48.0% (official figures here).

Voting in South Korea (like most presidential elections – the US is the big exception) is very simple: it’s a single nationwide ballot, and the candidate with the most votes wins. That’s fine as long as there are only two serious candidates, as was the case this time. (Independent Kang Ji-won was a very distant third with only 0.17%.)

But at other times it brings problems. In 1987, at the first election after democratisation, the military’s preferred candidate, Roh Tae-woo, won with just 36.6% of the vote. If his two opponents had been able to exchange preferences, or consolidate their vote in a runoff, one of them almost certainly would have beaten him.

Ten years later, the shoe was on the other foot: the centre-left’s Kim Dae-jung, one of the losers in 1987, won with only 40.8% against two opponents who split the conservative vote. (Adam Carr has all of the figures.)

Despite such anomalies, South Korea seems to have matured into a stable democracy. Odd, then, that its new president will be the daughter of its longest serving dictator – Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961, tore up the constitution in 1972 and ruled until he was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.

As dictators go, you could do worse than Park. He is given much of the credit for rebuilding the country after the Korean War, and South Koreans remained a lot freer than their counterparts in the north. But opposition was routinely suppressed, and as with many similar Cold War leaders (including Ferdinand Marcos, whom Park is said to have copied), support for authoritarianism did much to discredit western policy.

One can’t help but wonder what lessons Park Geun-hye learned in her father’s household. Both sides have helped to build South Korea’s democratic institutions, but the party system still marks the difference between the respective heirs of the military rulers and of their opponents. In this case, the term “heirs” is more than usually literal.

With only a narrow mandate, and with some need to differentiate herself from her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, whose hard-line policies towards North Korea have failed to yield much progress, there are hopes that Park will take a more conciliatory approach than her family background might suggest. And the simple fact of electing a female head of state, the first in the region, should be taken as a sign of continued political progress.

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  • 1
    POV 888
    Posted December 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I was thrilled to see Park Geun-hye elected as the first female leader of South Korea. I would vote for someone who said they would serve the people and mean it…time will tell.
    I hope her style of leadership will be progressive and open new lines of communications with North Korea in order to maintain harmonic relations.

  • 2
    Niall Clugston
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    To be pedantic, Soong Ching-Ling was President of China.

    Broadly across Asia there have been many female political leaders, but almost all of them like Park have been members of dynasties.

  • 3
    Charles Richardson
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi Niall – Yes, I guess that was a bit ambiguous; “first in the region” is supposed to refer to election of a female leader, not just having a female leader. But you’re quite right, across Asia women seem to have reached power almost always on a dynastic basis. Not that there aren’t plenty of men as well who’ve got there on the strength of their parents or grandparents.

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