[Viewpoint] The NFP’s (misunderstood) move left

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[Viewpoint] The NFP’s (misunderstood) move left

In the year leading up to the general election, the Saenuri Party (New Frontier Party) faced an important decision. Party support was flagging and the issue of the redistribution of wealth solidified as the second most important issue to the nation behind job creation, according to the monthly public opinion polls conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Traditionally, Saenuri Party has hung its hat on the economy and security, and while it has always been seen as competent on the former, the importance of the latter declined rapidly throughout 2011. However, moving toward issues dealing with welfare was a gamble.

Doing so risked abandoning what is traditionally assumed to be its base - Koreans in their fifties and sixties. But with the role that welfare issues played in the defeat of the Saenuri Party candidate in the Seoul mayoral by-election, the party had little choice but to begin to seriously address this issue. This move to the left has been criticized both from outside and inside the party, and has been labeled wholesale political pandering by many. However, this criticism is not wholly warranted as it is based on a traditional idea of who the supporters of Saenuri Party are and a false assumption of the issues they care about.

One of the assumptions about the party’s base - their age - is indeed correct. According to the Asan Institute’s March public opinion survey, 35 percent of those in their fifties and 42 percent of those in their sixties support the party, large pluralities for both age groups. Support for it falls off significantly among those in their twenties (22 percent), thirties (18 percent) and forties (25 percent).

However, the statement that its supporters care about the economy and national security only tells half of the story. Among all Koreans, 41 percent cite job creation as the single most important issue facing the nation - a clear plurality. A distant second is the issue of redistribution with 25 percent. Growing interest in redistribution is driven by those in their twenties, thirties and forties, but Koreans in their fifties also care deeply about this issue.

Among Koreans in their sixties, 44 percent cite job creation as the nation’s most important issue, 17 percent cite North-South relations, followed by 13 percent citing redistribution. This age group does indeed fall into the traditional conception of the Saenuri Party’s base. However, those in their fifties do not follow suit. While the number that cite job creation is equal to supporters in their sixties, only 12 percent cite North-South relations, while 22 percent cite redistribution. And this is not a one month anomaly for those in their fifties - these numbers have been consistent over the past eleven months. Clearly, Koreans in their fifties, and who make up a significant portion of the party base, do not follow traditional assumptions.

While we do not know if the party realized that moving left would address the concerns of its supporters in their fifties, the platform shift should not simply be seen as political pandering before an election. The party’s updated platform realigns it with a significant portion of its base. Moreover, ten years from now, those who are in their forties will be in their fifties. This cohort has strong feelings on redistribution according to Asan’s survey data, and if the party is to continue to build its base, it needs to prepare for a longer-term shift to the left. These voters may take on some conservative views, but it is doubtful that they will relinquish their interest in redistribution. The party’s change in policy aims to better represent a wider swath of its current supporters as well as to court future supporters in light of trends.

Moreover, rather than ceding the issue of redistribution to the progressive parties, along with a large amount of votes, the party has decided to do battle on this issue. And why not? Koreans in their sixties have no other viable conservative party for which to vote. While this group voiced doubts in previous months, with support bottoming out in December at 30 percent, support among this cohort is now higher (58 percent) than at any time since Asan began tracking the number in January 2011. Koreans in their sixties have come home to the party.

While Saenuri Party’s apparent strategy has failed to attract support from those in their thirties, and performed only marginally well with those in their forties, it seems to be paying dividends for the party among those in their twenties. Among those in this age group that cite redistribution as the issue most important to the nation (27 percent) there has been a huge increase in support for the party. In January, 12 percent of this cohort supported the party while triple that number (36 percent) supported it. However, it has been able to win a huge majority of those who were previously undecided among this cohort, and by March the gap had thinned to just 5 percent, with 29 percent supporting it and 34 percent supporting the Democratic United Party.

A more nuanced view of the Saenuri Party’s strategy is needed in the face of the upcoming elections. As recently as December the party hit rock bottom with overall support falling below 20 percent for the first time since the Asan Institute began polling. Since that time, the new leadership has righted the ship, and overall support among those in their sixties, fifties, and twenties stand at highs for the last 15 months. Support among those in their forties is at its second highest point. What once seemed like a lost election is suddenly a race again. This may be due in part to missteps by the DUP, but the ruling party’s shift should not be discounted. Shifting its platform to address an issue that is of interest both to the youth of Korea and to a large swath of the party’s base has paid off.

*The author is a program officer in the Public Opinion Studies Program at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. The views here are his own and do not necessarily represent the Asan Institute.

by Karl Friedhoff
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