S.Korean election exposes generation clash

By Park Gayoung Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-27 22:39:05

It looks glorious from the outside. President-elect Park Geun-hye has become the first female commander-in-chief in a conservative, male-dominated society, the first woman head of state in all of East Asia. In addition, she won more than 50 percent of the vote for the first time since the country adopted a direct presidential electoral system in 1987.

The election, however, reveals that the country, which already faces regional disputes on all sides, now faces a dangerous generation gap at home.

Take my family, for example. The day after the election, my younger sister told me she was so depressed that a dictator's daughter had been elected that she wanted to emigrate. This type of "flee to Canada syndrome" is a common cry in the US, but I've rarely heard it in South Korea.

Meanwhile, my 56-year-old father sent me a gushing text message celebrating the election of Ms Park, whose father, he believes, lifted the country out of poverty.

It turns out that the fracture in my family is not an isolated case. The polls suggest that this generation gap may have even played a crucial role in the election.

In an election which was lacking in policy agendas, each generation relied on their relative experiences. South Korea's 50-somethings came out in force with an unprecedented 89.9 percent turnout rate and threw their votes to Park. Those born between 1956 and 1963 are also considered South Korea's baby boomers. Analysts say this generation acted mainly to stave off uncertainty.

They are about to retire but are expected to live 20 or 30 more years. With the financial crisis crushing their savings and household debts piling up to record levels, they voted in a collective act of conservatism that isn't surprising - Park's father may have been brutal at times, but the generation who lived through his regime also experienced stability and economic development. 

Younger voters, on the other hand, wanted to change the country's politics. They are frustrated with the gradual undermining of freedom of expression the country has seen in the last five years. They have observed numerous journalists going on months-long protests.

They were also angry at the corruption surrounding the family of the outgoing President Lee Myung-bak and his staff. To make matters worse, the rich continue to amass wealth, while recent college graduates struggle to find jobs.

Even more frustrating for younger voters is the fact that it's very likely their parents' generation will decide the next president, and the one after that, too. The number of voters in their 50s and 60s is growing while the younger voters are fewer due to the very low birth rate and the rapid speed at which South Korean society is aging.

For the next presidential election in 2017, for instance, the number of voters in their 50s and 60s will make up 45.1 percent of the total electorate, while the number of younger voters in their 20s and 30s will shrink to 34.7 percent from the current 38.2 percent. With the demographic change, South Korea may be turning into a long-term conservative country.

Park was elected through a democratic method of election, and future electoral prospects are bright for the conservative party and Park, even without the support of the younger generation. However, this doesn't mean that the incoming administration can ignore the people who didn't vote for it and only care about its supporters.

The new president should make it a priority to address the issues that both the younger and older generations face. South Korea does not need another gap on top of regional and ideological ones. If Park overcomes the generation gap wisely then she could even provide some insight to many other countries experiencing similar aging problems.

If she does not, she will be given an unpleasant reminder of the force that was an integral part of her father's undoing: angry 20-somethings protesting on the streets. And this will bring what their parents' generation hates the most - instability.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. gayoungpark@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: Viewpoint

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