South Korea recently held by-elections in two major cities: Seoul and Busan, as former mayors of both cities failed to fulfill their terms. Park Won-soon, Seoul’s mayor, committed suicide while being investigated for sexual harassment. In Busan, then-mayor Oh Keo-don groped his female assistant which led him to step down from his position. As a result, both Seoul and Busan simultaneously lacked mayors, which was unprecedented in the history of South Korean politics.
The suicide of Mayor Park was the event that shocked the whole nation, as Seoul signifies the epicenter of South Korean politics. Winning an election of any kind in the capital city has almost the same value as winning the whole country. In fact, one of Seoul’s districts, Jongno, is referred to as “Jeongchi Il Beonji (정치 1번지),” of South Korea, literally meaning the primary home of politics. Many presidential or National Assembly candidates who won Jongno either became president or member of the National Assembly.
Who Was Running?
There were 15 candidates in total. The two most popular candidates by far were the center-left Park Young-Sun of the Democratic Party and conservative Oh Se-Hoon of the People Power Party.
Park Young-Sun had served as a National Assembly member and the minister of the Ministry of SMEs and Startups. Her platform was comprised of: enabling citizens to access commutes, work, leisure, healthcare, and education within 21 minutes on average from their place of residence; stabilizing the housing and job markets to foster a productive environment for start-ups; establishing a convenient public transportation network; expanding options for daycare and education; and facilitating the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Park’s counterpart was Oh Se-hoon, who previously served as the mayor of Seoul from 2006 to 2011. Oh and Park served as lawmakers in the National Assembly simultaneously for one term. Oh’s main policy proposals were: stabilizing the real estate market and reforming city-wide development limitations; expanding the public transportation networks; adopting trams; promoting the balanced development for Seoul; establishing a single-household relief team; and helping young people suffering from unemployment and financial troubles.
There were nine candidates competing in Busan, with the two most popular ones being Kim Young-Chun of the Democratic Party and Park Hyung-Jun of the People Power Party.
Kim Young-Chun led the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and also served in the National Assembly. His campaign promises focused on making Busan a global economic hub by completing the construction of Gadeok Airport and holding World Expo in 2030. In terms of city development, he promised to make Busan cleaner and eco-friendly by creating forest paths atop underground railroads that connect the city to Seoul. Kim also vowed to make a new maritime observatory, expand public medical services to eradicate COVID-19, and promote civic engagement in local politics.
His counterpart, Park Hyung-Jun served as a member of the Busan City Council and as a professor at Donga University’s Graduate School of International Studies. His main proposals were: creating jobs for different generations; expanding the use of AI as an economic driver; making every essential public service accessible within a 15-minute radius of where people live, constructing the maglev transportation system, establishing child-only libraries; increasing funds to tackle low birth rate issues; and providing support for young adults with credit issues.
The conservative People Power Party ended up victorious in both Seoul and Busan, with candidates Oh Se-hoon and Park Hyung-jun both securing wins.
Oh Se-hoon turned out victorious over Park Young-sun by over 890,000 votes. The voter turnout was 58.2%, with 4.9 million out of 8.4 million voters showing up to vote.
Park Hyung-jun was victorious over Kim Hyung-Chun by over 430,000 votes. The voter turnout was 52.7%, with 1.5 million out of 2.9 million voters showing up to vote.
The overall voter turnout rate was lower than the tally of 60.2% in the local elections in 2018 and 66.2% in the General Election last year. However, it was higher than the voter turnout of the by-elections in 2019; 48%.
Voter turnout as of April 8, 2021, 20:00 (KST)
How Did the Candidates Promote Themselves?
Presenting a positive impression to voters is crucial to the success of the elections. When it comes to campaigns, Korean politicians get creative. Normally they come up with upbeat songs, choreography, slogans, and live performances. However, these have been limited this year due to the social distancing rules to control COVID-19.
This year, candidates could use their own customized trucks that drive around different parts of the city and advertise their messages out to voters. They were allowed to play songs and dance on the trucks while they couldn’t shake hands or talk to the voters.
Also, many candidates pay a visit to popular markets and volunteer to take part in regular, day-to-day tasks. For example, Park Young-sun worked as a part-timer of a convenience store for a day and Oh Se-hoon helped with cleaning a subway train. This “performance” of politicians is to show that they support the local communities and care about the people.
Election Day: Voter’s Point of View
In order to cast a ballot, a person has to be a Korean national who is over 18. There are some exceptions where non-citizen can also vote. For example, people who are on certain F-series visas are eligible to vote after they live in the country for three years. However, generally only Korean nationals can cast ballots.
All election days are designated as national holidays to encourage participation but this does not apply to by-elections.
This year, due to the spread of COVID-19, all voters were required to wear masks and vinyl gloves at the voting booths. If a voter was COVID-19 positive, they were allowed to cast a ballot in the hospital. If a voter shows up without a mask or has a fever higher than 37.5°C, they will be escorted to a designated area to cast a ballot.
In Korean elections, voters mark their ballots using a stamp. In recent years, many voters have stamped the seal on their hands, taken a picture, and uploaded it to social media to let their friends and people on the internet know that they have voted. This is known as injeungshot.
A: 너 어제 투표하고 인증샷 찍었냐?
B: 당근이지, 내 인스타 안 봤냐?
A: Did you take an injeungshot after you voted yesterday?