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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Nae-Young Lee on Political Polarization in Korea

by | August 12th, 2014 | 06:58 am
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This week, I attended a conference in Taiwan organized by Yun-han Chu (National Taiwan University) and Larry Diamond (Stanford) on the important question of polarization in Asian democracies. Nae-Young Lee (Korea University) gave an interesting paper on Korea, comparing levels of party and voter polarization over time, and we summarize some of the findings here.

The data comes from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) project, and polarization is measured as ideological difference between parties and voters, grouped into those with common party identifications on a 1-7 left-right scale. This scaling is an important limit, because the Korean electorate is not only divided on traditional left-right issues but also on North-South relations, the alliance and foreign policy. Nonetheless, Lee’s data is interesting for tracking an important new cleavage in the political system over social issues and rising income disparities.

Figure 2, reproduced below, tracks the ideological positions of parties over time; the width of the arrows reflects the parties’ vote shares. As can be seen, the ideological distance between Kim Dae Jung’s MDP and the conservative GNP in 2000 was minimal. The election in 2002 had a major effect on the system: both Roh Tae Woo’s UP and the GNP shift away from the center and a new left party—the DPL emerges, and polarization increases sharply. Although the entry and exit of some new parties muddies the water, the ideological distance between the main left and right parties has remained quit wide.

Ideological positions -fig 2

An interesting debate in political science centers on whether polarization is driven by elites or voters. Do parties become more polarized as voters’ positions shift, or do parties lead, with voters taking cues, following or “sorting.” Figure 4 offers some evidence on this score. The overall patterns are similar, but the extent of polarization among voters is less; ie. parties do not reflect the more moderate stance of voters but rather exacerbate polarization.

Ideological positions -fig 4

Finally, Table 8 provides information on the ideological position of voters by age cohort. This table is extraordinarily well-behaved; the relationship between age and ideology is consistent in every year of the survey. Younger voters are more liberal than older ones. Moreover, older voters have gotten more conservative over time while other age cohorts have stayed relatively constant. This data helps explain recent electoral outcomes, including the 2012 election. If the election had been held among voters under 50, Moon Jae-in would have won hands down; Park Geun-hye triumphed because of the wide gaps in favor of the Saenuri among the 50-59 and over 60 voters.

Ideological positions -tbl 8

These findings have a number of implications for Korean democracy. The first is that parties are somewhat out of step with citizens, a phenomenon noted in the US as well. Elites are more polarized than masses, but with the effect that they may tend to polarize voters over time.

Second, the findings are not hopeful for the center-left UP and the troubled UPP. Korea is aging; a crucial question for the political system will be whether voters get more conservative as they age or whether more liberal younger voters stick to their partisan orientations over time. If the first is the case—which is plausible—the left in Korea is in trouble and will need to moderate its message, including with respect to North Korea, the alliance and foreign policy. The Roh Moo Hyun faction within the UP puts a lot of weight on these issues, but as we have seen from earlier surveys it is not clear that this position is either salient with voters nor popular as both interest in, and sympathy for, North Korea declines. The center-left needs to find new messages appealing to younger voters and make some inroads into older voters as well.