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Tipsheet

The Three Words to Describe South Korea's Swing Voters in Their Latest Trumpian Presidential Election

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The election was on March 9, but some other issues have taken precedence. We’ve had Joe Biden’s dementia during this Ukraine war present itself during his trip to Europe. The man is going to talk us into World War III. We’re still dealing with inflation. We have a gas price crisis. The supply chain is still messed up. The border is still porous. We’re about to enter a recession. Still, the abject failure of the political class to do…anything for people isn’t an American problem. It’s everywhere. In South Korea, the progressive government was marred with similar dysfunction and corruption which led to a political novice on the conservative side winning the latest election. South Korea has its own Donald Trump.

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Some of the background to this election is similar. After the corruption fiasco that sent ex-President Park Geun-hye, the conservatives in South Korea were in disarray. After the 2012 election, the GOP was in the same way. Now, it wasn’t because of a massive corruption scandal, but two back-to-back losses and folks who would rather lose with honor than win caused the base to seek new blood, novice blood. In 2016, Donald Trump won in one of the most spectacular political upsets in modern American political history. It was like Truman’s shock 1948 win. In 2021, South Korea’s conservatives picked Yoon Suk-yeol, also a novice in the world of politics and the prosecutor who put away Park-Geun-hye. What we experienced here in 2016 regarding the nastiness of the election is what happened in South Korea recently. 

The three words that I saw that were used to describe the swing voters of this election were “young, broke, and angry.” The rise of anti-feminism has been documented as the economy in South Korea has entered a state of volatility. Sound familiar? One of the main domestic grievances is that the previous government couldn’t get housing prices under control. On the foreign policy front, the failure over the past five years to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions was another failure that was fresh in the minds of enough voters to boot the liberals (via NYT):

With 98 percent of the votes counted, the opposition leader, Yoon Suk-yeol, was leading by a margin of 263,000 votes, or 0.8 percentage points, when his opponent conceded early Thursday. It was South Korea’s tightest race since it began holding free presidential elections in 1987.

Mr. Yoon will replace President Moon Jae-in, a progressive leader whose single five-year term ends in May.

The election was widely seen as a referendum on Mr. Moon’s government. Its failure to curb skyrocketing housing prices angered voters.  So did #MeToo and corruption scandals involving Mr. Moon’s political allies, as well as a lack of progress in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

[…]

Mr. Yoon served as prosecutor general under Mr. Moon. His political stock rose among conservative South Koreans when he resigned last year and became a bitter critic of his former boss. Pre-election surveys had indicated that South Koreans would vote for Mr. Yoon less because they liked him than to show their anger at Mr. Moon and his Democratic Party.

[…]

His election comes as South Korea is projecting influence around the world as never before. The small nation of 52 million people has long punched above its weight in manufacturing and technology, but more recently has added film, television and music to its list of successful global exports.

At home, however, voters are deeply unhappy.

Home prices are out of reach. The country has one of the world’s lowest birthrates, with the population falling for the first time on record in 2021 as economic uncertainty makes young people reluctant to marry or have children. Legions of people fresh out of college complain about a lack of job opportunities, often accusing older generations of hanging onto their jobs. And both anti-immigrant and anti-feminist sentiment are on the rise.

The deepening uncertainty, made worse by two years of Covid restrictions, has left many, especially young people,  anxious about the future.

“We are the betrayed generation,” said Kim Go-eun, 31, who works for a convenience store chain. “We have been taught that if we studied and worked hard, we would have a decent job and economically stable life. None of that has come true.

“No matter how hard we try, we don’t see a chance to join the middle class,” she said.

The campaign also exposed a nation deeply divided over gender conflicts. Mr. Yoon was accused of pandering to widespread sentiment against China and against feminists among young men, whose support proved crucial to his victory. Exit polls showed the voters in their 20s split sharply along the gender line, with men favoring Mr. Yoon and women Mr. Lee.

Young men said they were gravitating toward Mr. Yoon because he spoke to some of their deepest concerns, like the fear that an influx of immigrants and a growing feminist movement would further erode their job opportunities. Professor Ahn likened the phenomenon to “Trumpism.”

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Of course, the anti-feminism bit is going to be the hook for most in the media. Yet, some noted regarding young men and how they voted, it remains unclear if they voted for Mr. Yoon based on his anti-feminism war cries or because of the economic climate and the corruption scandals that marred the outgoing Moon presidency. Some have noted Mr. Yoon’s past remarks about getting rid of the 52-hour workweek and the minimum wage.

Let’s see what happens. Barring any serious legal infractions that would lead to impeachment, South Korea has Mr. Yoon for the next five years. 

A South Korean Donald Trump? Let’s see what happens. 

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