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Voting Preferences in the 2024 South Korean Legislative Election 

12 Feb 2024
By Hannah Heewon Seo
Laying a wreath at the National Monument on Dam Square. Source: Republic of Korea Presidential Office /

The legislative election on 10 April in South Korea will be critical for President Yoon Suk-yeol, occurring just before the halfway point of his five-year term. With current approval rating sitting at 31 percent, the outcome does not look good.  

South Korea is one of the fastest-aging countries in the world, and in 2023 had the lowest fertility rate with 0.72 babies expected per woman. April’s election will reflect this demographic trend more than others; it is the first election where the number of voters in their 60s and older is higher (31.4 percent) than people in the age of 20s and 30s (31.1 percent). This is an important number for voter outcomes. The 60s+ demographic tends to be more active, and their interests will likely strongly influence the result. These voters are a mixed group of “baby boomers” and the “86 Generation.” 

In South Korea, these two voting blocs differentiate considerably and occupy either side of the two party system. Baby boomers were born in the 1950s after the Korean War, and are mainly in their 60s and 70s today. This generation has lived through periods of totalitarianism, assassinations, and strongman rule while also, correspondingly, contributing to the rapid economic growth of South Korea. They generally represent the key “conservative” party constituency, which nowadays is the People Power Party (the ruling party). The “86 Generation” refers to those born in the 1960s and who attended university in the 1980s. It includes many former student protestors of the pro-democracy movements during this era. They have just entered their 60s and are typically characterised as progressive supporters of political reform, and generally support the Democratic Party of Korea (the main opposition party).  

Citizens now in their 20s and 30s, also called “Generation MZ,” are a hidden variable in the legislative elections, and are more definitively identified as “non-partisans” or “swing voters.” This ratio is 50 percent in the age group between 18 and 29, and 34 percent for those in the 30s. Their potential to swing between parties has changed the outcomes of previous elections, sometimes even against polling predictions. In the presidential election of 2022, for instance, this group played a decisive role in the victory of then-presidential candidate Yoon over Lee Jae-myung. The election race was tight throughout, with the difference in poll numbers being within the margin of error (48.1 percent of them cast votes for Yoon).   

“Fairness” is the word that summarises the critical value of Generation MZ in South Korea. They have felt more keenly the turmoil from Park Geun-hye-Choi Soon-sil Gate and the scandal with Cho Kuk, the Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs, both of which involved special admissions for university. The group is more strongly opposed to corruption among high-ranking officials and the upper class, and define “fairness” as based on ability and performance without special favour.  

Gender has also become an increasingly important topic during this election period, particularly as calls for fairness are made. South Korea has distinct gender issues compared to other countries. Men have mandatory military service, meanwhile South Korean women have achieved the highest unemployment rate across 37 OECD countries. Both issues have become a source of conflict. During the 2022 campaign Yoon promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, arguing that the gender-based discrimination of the 1990s was no longer as pervasive. He further remarked that the ministry’s structure was ineffective in solving contemporary gender-based crimes and inequalities. With the current unemployment crisis hitting Gen MZ hard, recently recording the highest number of jobless and lowest employed since 1999, any gender-based privilege for employment can be a flash point for dispute.    

This upcoming election is no exception. The former representative of the People Power Party, Jun-seok Andy Lee, recently proposed mandatory military service for new female public servants. This was viewed as a “radical” proposal and not likely to meaningfully deal with the issue of fairness between genders. Yoon has previously pledged to help his party by specifically seeking to win the votes of “males in their 20s.” Such comments only hope to stir the pot and draw public attention toward the candidate or slander the opposition’s response.   

Finally, it is questionable whether the voices of the younger generation are being appropriately conveyed. Most politicians belong to older generations (40-60s), and for those younger ones that have been able to gain entry into the political halls of power, their platforms have been subsumed by party politics. Some have been made into more symbolic figures to demonstrate the party’s approach to reform and innovation. In the last legislative elections the proportion of Gen MZ voters stood at 31.4 percent. Yet this number is considerable compared to young members of the National Assembly, which stands currently at only 4.3 percent, the lowest among all OECD countries 

As these numbers demonstrate, prospects for this election are not favourable for those who wish for more young representatives. As of the 12 January, only four candidates are in their 20s. Candidates in the 30s are seeking 40 seats across 253 constituencies – only 4.2 percent. Meanwhile, the 86 Generation politicians at the National Assembly sit at around 58 percent, up significantly from 20 percent in the legislative election 2004. Many professionals, even the head of the emergency measure committee of the People Power Party, Han Dong-hoon, have remarked upon what has become an embedded political cartel within the National Assembly, composed of predominantly “86 Generation” politicians, who are reluctant to step down.  

Meanwhile, to avoid being considered superficially “youth-friendly,” political parties have advertised youth policies to win votes among Gen MZ. These include supporting a system for fostering and educating children, youth jobs guarantees, and improved youth housing policies. Yet, due to the issue of not having enough people to stand for youth politics, the need for recognition of Gen MZ in the political agenda usually becomes expendable during the elections.  

In sum, the April election will decide the number of members of the National Assembly who will support Yoon’s government for the remaining two years. But there is more. In the long term, it will be only the first election to show which party wins the non-partisan Generation MZ. The direction of the election will vary depending on how effective the message is and how attractive the policies are. The MZ generation is unique in that their political party preferences are not defined by historical events, especially those that have been so influential to the group identities of older generations. Their interests are diverse, and they respond more to policies that correspond well with their personal values.  

Hannah Heewon Seo is a student at the Australian National University and an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Her whose research focuses on politics and international relations in the Asia-Pacific region, the impact of Chaebols, business conglomerates, and their policies in reducing carbon footprints in South Korea, and foreign labour policy reform in Japan.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.