Demographics transforming politics

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Demographics transforming politics

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The presidential election last year taught political analysts that Korea had entered a new era: A higher voter turnout, which used to favor the liberal parties, now favors the conservatives.

It’s all because of changing demographics in Korea, and political analysts have to study age groups and the changing populations of various regions to map out their election strategies in the future.

The May Census showed that the population of Chungcheong has exceeded that of Jeolla, also referred to as Honam, for the first time since the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Although the margin was minimal in May - 408 people - the gap grew to 10,094 just three months afterward.

Population growth has stalled in Jeolla, while Chungcheong is seeing its population rise by 3,000 people every month. Statistics Korea predicts that Chungcheong’s population will outnumber that of Jeolla by about 310,000 by 2017, when the next presidential election will take place.

The change is a historical breakthrough. A census in 1798, during the King Jeongjo period, showed the population of Jeolla to be 1.23 million, much more than the 871,057 of Chungcheong. According to a census in 1925, during the Japanese colonial period Jeolla’s population was 3.47 million versus 2.09 in Chungcheong. In the 1980s, Chungcheong’s population was 70 percent more than that of Jeolla.

The trend started to reverse after the turn of the 21st century. As large companies rushed to invest in cities in Chungcheong such as Cheonan, Asan and Dangjin, the population began to jump. And when the government opened Sejong City last year, the inflow of people gained momentum.

At the same time, Jeolla, which lacks industries, saw its population tumble as people migrated to bigger cities or other regions.

Jeolla barely outpaced Chungcheong when it came to the number of voters during last year’s presidential election - 4.13 million versus 4.1 million. This month, the number of registered residents aged 19 or older in Chungcheong is expected to exceed those in Jeolla. For this reason, Lee Si-jong, governor of North Chungcheong, recently said, “The regional axis that centered around Gyeongsang and Jeolla has transformed into Gyeongsang, Chungcheong and Jeolla.”

The population evolution has emerged as a major headache for the opposition Democratic Party, which has its traditional base in Jeolla. Currently, North and South Jeolla have 30 seats in the National Assembly, five more than North and South Chungcheong.

Obviously, politicians from Chungcheong will demand more seats in the upcoming election district adjustment negotiation, citing their increased population, which will dilute Jeolla’s power.

“The reason President Park Geun-hye agreed with the original plan to create Sejong City, an idea of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, is that she foresaw the strategic value of Chungcheong,” says Song Byung-kwon, professor of politics at Chung-Ang University. “The Democratic Party should not rely on Jeolla as much as it has in the past.” He further advises the opposition party to find issues and personalities that will appeal to voters in Chungcheong as well as other regions in the middle of the country such as Gangwon.

Another big demographic change is the aging population. The presidential race last year saw voters in their 50s and older outnumber voters in their 20s and 30s, which many analysts think swung Park’s election. According to a demographics analysis, the average age of Korean voters is expected to continue rising.

According to population estimates from Statistics Korea, 24.6 percent of all voters in the 2017 presidential election will be aged 60 or over. One out of five voters will be in their 50s. That means 44.4 percent of Korean citizens with voting rights will be 50 or older, which is 4.4 percentage points more than the 40 percent registered in last year’s election. In contrast, the portion of voters in their 20s and 30s will sink from 38.2 percent to 35.7 percent. Given that the voting rate of the older generation is generally higher than that of its younger counterpart, it can be assumed that nearly 50 percent of all votes will be from people in their 50s or older in the 2017 presidential election.

That’s a stark contrast with the 2002 election, when voters in their 20s and 30s accounted for 48.3 percent of all voters.

Some analysts are raising concerns about the so-called silver democracy, which Japan has already developed. In a silver democracy, the political community tends to concentrate on issues that matter to senior citizens, such as retiree welfare, and neglect the needs of the young. A larger proportion of older voters is also turning domestic politics more conservative.

“It may seem that an aging population would work in the ruling party’s favor,” says Lim Sung-ho, a political science professor at Kyung Hee University. “But the overall educational level has also improved, which means it’s hard to flatly declare an aging population would increase conservatism among voters.”

BY KIM JUNG-HA, KIM KYUNG-JIN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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