Korea South
How The Ballot Selfie Movement Changed Korean Democracy

For decades older voters in Korea gave the conservative majority a big advantage - and a majority in the national parliament. But in this years popular vote, the dynamic changed, and the majority was lost. The reason? Young voters turned out at ballot stations as never before, mobilized by a new use of social media in the campaigns, reports Yoon Lee from Seoul.

Korea has been in recession for many years and plagued by youth unemployment and skyrocketing rents in the major cities. Still the conservative major party (since 2012 called the Saenuri Party) pushed forward corporate-friendly policies and kept silent when the current Korean president, Ms Park Geun-Hye, advanced policies unilaterally, often without broad consultation. But a very active older generation of conservative-leaning voters in provinces like Kyungsang, Daegu and richer parts of Seoul made sure the party retained its power in the country´s 300-seat unicameral parliament.

Meanwhile, the opposition centre-left party, after losing presidential power in 2008, engaged mainly in internal fights. Ultimately, the opposition party divided into two parties, leaving the opposition even weaker. So the results in this elections, which were held on April 13, constituted a surprise: The warring opposition parties together won a majority of 171, sweeping the greater Seoul area as well the traditional conservative parties of the country. Not one of the opinion polls had predicted such a result.


"A revolution by young Korea"

What happened? "A revolution by young Korea" is how commentators put it. The most significant point was the big increase of the voter turnout of the 20s´ and 30s´; According to the public Broadcaster KBS, compared to the last General Election, the voter turnout of the 20s voters´ increased 13%(36.2%49.4%) and 30s´ increased 7%(43.3%→49.5%). At the same time, the number of voters older than age 50 decreased. For the very first time since the democratic revolution in the late 1980s, when young students led the struggle to overthrow the military dictatorship, younger voters became truly active again. And their activism was built around social media conversations (around the proposals of the candidates and the need to vote) and the promotion of promoting modern direct democracy, especially as the initiative and referendum process.

Thanks to the easy access to the high speed internet and smart phone, Korean politicians have to prove themselves thoroughly and watch their words and acts more than ever before. If not, their record of the broken promises and the improper statements can spread through the media within a few hours. During the party nomination process leading up to these elections, many politicians were exposed by regular Internet users for their past scandals, improper behaviours, false pledges and criminal records. Some lost their nominations as a result.

For the first time in modern Korean history, an election took place with a more democratized sphere, and the young responded by participating.

Today´s Korean civil society organizations have roots in old (and sometimes secret and illegal) associations that worked on labour rights, anti-corruption, and human rights during the dictatorship era in 1960s and 1970s. The procedural democratization since 1987 brought the extension of the civil space; older civil organizations remade themselves, and new ones were established. This tide of civil groups has different origins - in Facebook and Twitter. Their claims are grounded and practical; they want to improve the difficulties of daily life; they push for more stable jobs, lower rent and lower college tuition.


The Slug Union

For example, new youth groups raised a lawsuit against the employers and corporations that exploit young part-time employees. One such organization, the "Union of the Unemployed" established in 2006 but with roots in an online community that dates to 1998, supports the unemployed through counselling; it also offers training in entrepreneurship and campaigns for improvement of labour conditions for the temporarily hired young people. Another one, The Slug Union, (**Snails have their own house(shell) on the back but slugs don´t. It started from the concept that everyone should have their own place to live (like snails) but young generation in Korea is deprived their residential rights due to ridiculously high rent. Therefore the founders of The Slug Union chose slugs as their symbol.) working closely with local government and universities, especially in the Greater Seoul Area, has made some meaningful achievements such as "the provision of the Youth Housing" and "integrated housing information for the youth".

These people often perform the flash mob and performance in the crowded areas to draw the attention of the media and raise awareness of their issues. Their funny reinterpretation of the demonstration also has made Korea´s demonstration culture less violent.


Breakthrough for citizens’ media

This year, social media tools mobilized young Koreans to go to the voting booth. It became a big trend that young people post the Proof Shots (selfie to prove him or he had voted) on Instagram or Facebook after voting on the Election Day. You can easily find young people (and even some middle-aged people) taking selfies after voting with the balloting place on the background or the ballot stamps on their face or hands on Election Day. Recent election reforms made a difference.

Early voting, in place since 2013, made it easier to bring young people to the ballot; previously, voters had to register in advance and could vote only at the assigned places for Absentee Ballot. The establishment of a digital register for voting enabled people to vote anywhere in the country without pre-registration. Only an identity check was required. These changes increased the early voting rate for voters younger than 30 from less than 25 percent (in 2012) to more than 40 percent this year. Another factor: the growth of citizens´ media, as Koreans made their own podcasts, YouTube videos, and alternative websites, often devoted to election news and encouraging participation. These citizens´ efforts countered the major conservative media, which in Korea are owned by super-rich families. For the first time in modern Korean history, an election took place with a more democratized sphere, and the young responded by participating.

Yoon Lee is international program officer at the Korea Democracy Foundation and works for sustainable international development and the concepts of democracy, human rights and citizenship education. She believes in the power of education, good nature of human.