Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Conservative South Korea elects its first female president

Park Geun-hye. Photo: The Star.

2012 was a year for elections in many countries around the world, and East Asia was no exception. Taiwan, Japan, and Korea called their citizens to the polling stations, with Korea being the most remarkable case as it elected a woman president for the first time in its history.

Park Geun-hye won the December 19 elections with 51.6% of the votes, the largest percentage ever gotten by a presidential candidate in the country. She is also the first woman to be elected president of Korea in all of the country’s constitutional history, and the second woman to rule the nation since Queen Chinsong from the Unified Dynasty (BC 57 – DC 935). Besides, Park’s election marks the first occurrence of a father and daughter having assumed the presidency in Korea, as her father, Park Chung-hee, was the mastermind behind the economic miracle that took the country out of post-war poverty while in power in the 1970s.

In a way, this is the triumph of progress and gender equality in a conservative, male-dominated society. However, Park Geun-hye’s landslide victory is mostly related to the nostalgia that older voters have for the so-called “Han River Miracle” led by her father. As the population ages, citizens in their 50s and 60s recall the stability and financial development they experienced during the 70s in spite of an often brutal regime, and their sentiment reflects on the way they vote. In this occasion, this bout of longing conservatism led to an unprecedented 89.9% turnout rate for this age group. Meanwhile, younger voters, ever fewer due to the current low birth rate in the country, demand political change but are becoming too few to be heard. This demographic tendency is turning Korea into a long-term conservative nation, as the rapid growth of the older population means that this age group will very likely be choosing the next president and the one after that.

In spite of the generational gap and its implications for the future of Korea, the 2012 presidential elections were a healthy exercise in democracy where the people intended for a woman to be given a chance to govern this country after centuries of male hegemony. The possibility of having people change the course of history of their country through elections is a very powerful reason to call for more efficient voting systems. In that sense, electronic voting is undoubtedly the best method to guarantee reliable and transparent elections that truly reflect the citizens’ intent.