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Five things to know about women and South Korea’s 2020 elections

There is more to this than covid-19

- May 11, 2020

South Korea was the first country to hold national elections amid the coronavirus pandemic. The election drew a high level of global attention, as other countries no doubt wondered how the pandemic would affect their own upcoming elections.

Defying predictions that fears of the coronavirus would discourage participation, the April 15 parliamentary election instead had a remarkably high voter turnout. Media coverage took note of the government’s comprehensive disinfection regimen and social distancing at polling places, a system designed to reduce the possibility of infection.

The ruling Democratic Party’s landslide victory became a cautionary tale to other leaders — voters rewarded the government’s coronavirus testing and tracing efforts. But voting under the shadow of a pandemic may have obscured something else: This election marked the highest number of women ever elected into South Korea’s parliament. Here are five things to know.

1. South Korea elected 57 women — more than ever before.

The April election results show 57 women were elected (19 percent of the 300 seats in parliament), the highest ever since democratization in 1987. The ruling Democratic Party now has 30 female legislators, while the conservative opposition United Future Party has 18.

Internationally, however, South Korea ranks 118th in terms of the share of women in the national legislature.

2. Gender quotas help women start their first term, but they do not help much for reelection.

South Korea’s National Assembly has two groups of representatives. Voters choose 253 district-level representatives, while 47 national-level seats are distributed proportional to each party’s vote share. Among the 57 female winners of this year’s election, 29 were elected as district-level members, making up 17 percent of the two major parties’ district winners.

Since 2004, South Korea has had a 50 percent candidate gender quota for national-level seats. Each party ranks its national-tier candidates before the election, and the two major parties alternate male and female candidates on the list. This system explains why more than half of the newly elected national-level members are women.

The 50 percent quota is a great way for political newcomers to start their first term, but they often have a hard time getting reelected. My analysis of 4,111 district-level legislative candidates between 2004 and 2016 in South Korea showed that 11 percent of female candidates were “quota members,” compared with only 1 percent of all male candidates. However, national-tier members have an almost identical chance of winning the district-level election as candidates with no national-level experience.

Still, women use their national-tier experience to run for reelection more often than men, as the quota system opens up a rare opportunity for women to get their feet in the door. In April’s election, eight out of 42 national-level members contested for district-level seats, all of them women. Four were reelected.

3. Female winners are younger but just as highly educated and politically experienced as men.

In this election, female winners were, on average, four years younger than male victors (average age of 52 vs. 56). All 253 district-level winners had completed a four-year college education, and 62 percent of women and 60 percent of men pursued/completed postsecondary degrees. This educational pattern is similar to that in all previous elections in the country since 1988.

Moreover, the reelected female members have a comparable level of national legislative experience as their male counterparts. About 38 percent of female winners and 45 percent of male victors were incumbents in their own districts, and 52 percent of female winners and 53 percent of male victors are either current or former national legislators.

4. Want more women in politics? Help them win primaries.

Primaries in general tend to favor candidates with high name recognition and a strong support network — and that can be a challenge for female candidates in any election. However, in South Korea, candidates nominated through the primary process have higher levels of success than those selected by party bosses, regardless of their gender. A previous study on nomination paths and voter support showed that helping female candidates win a primary can be a more effective way to address women’s underrepresentation than implementing a gender quota. The lesson seems to still apply to the April election.

The two major parties selected 489 district-level candidates, which include 38 percent of the candidates who won their districts’ primaries. Among the primary-winning candidates, 59 percent of them eventually won the April election, a higher rate than the 45 percent of candidates bypassing primaries.

5. South Korea had its first feminist political party on the ballot.

In this election, 35 political parties jockeyed for the 47 national-level seats. The ballot was more than 18 inches long — and included the Women’s Party, South Korea’s first feminist party. The party platform addresses issues such as gender equality in political representation, gender-based violence, socioeconomic discrimination against women, intersectionality and climate change.

Though just two months old, the Women’s Party claimed more than 200,000 votes in the election — but with less than 1 percent of the total vote, the party won no seats in parliament. This was disappointing news to some Koreans, especially considering recent momentum on gender issues in the country, buoyed by a strong #MeToo movement and the Constitutional Court’s decision in 2019 to strike down the ban on abortion.

The list of newly elected legislators nonetheless includes a number of high-profile feminist activists and leaders. According to one recent study, women’s parties around the world are rare but not unheard of, and sometimes even precede statehood (for example, in Israel) and women’s suffrage (Argentina). Some women’s parties are active for decades. Others disappear quickly, but their issues outlive the organization as other parties adopt these priorities.

South Korea’s fight for gender equality may well continue in the National Assembly. Which trajectory the new Women’s Party will follow remains to be seen.

Young-Im Lee is an assistant professor of political science at California State University at Sacramento.