South Korea’s liberal opposition, bolstered by the under 40s and power of social media, could spring a surprise win in this week’s parliamentary elections despite opinion polls that show it tied with the ruling conservatives.
Experts say traditional pollsters base their projections on owners of fixed telephone lines, whereas people in their 20s and 30s, who form 37 percent of the voting population in the world’s most wired country, rarely use them.
The young, more likely to carry a Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone in their pockets, are mostly liberal and they express and spread their views online, often using their smartphones.
“Views expressed in cyberspace are about 20 percent favorable to us and 80 percent against,” said Lee Jun-seok, a 27-year-old Harvard-educated computer expert brought in to help revamp the ruling conservative Saenuri Party’s online presence.
“It’s almost like as soon as you say something for our party, you come under attack,” he said.
The five most popular politicians on Twitter are all left-wingers. The top conservative is presidential contender Park Geun-hye who ranks eighth with about 180,000 followers, according to Koreantweeters.com, a Web site on Twitter power.
On the other hand, a traditional Realmeter poll taken between March 26 and March 30 showed 39.8 percent support for the ruling conservatives, 30.5 percent support for the main opposition Democrat United Party (DUP) and 8.1 percent for its coalition partner, the United Progressive Party.
At the end of last year, traditional polls had the conservatives trailing the opposition, but now suggest the ruling party has made a comeback. Experts said they were flawed.
“Random digit dialing systems based on fixed lines rule out young people, workers who come home late and households that don’t have landlines,” said Yoon Hee-woong from the Korea Society Opinion Institute, a -research organization.
South Korea has the world’s second-largest blogging community after China. Twitter use is twice the world average, according to a Singapore Management University study. In addition, they have enormous leverage in elections because the government has now lifted a ban on campaigning in social media.
Social media has also acted as a counterweight to the mainstream media, which is largely controlled by the huge conglomerates that dominate the world’s 13th-largest economy.
It could prompt young voters, who are concerned with issues like growing income inequality, to swing behind the DUP which is opposed to a free-trade agreement with the US and wants restrictions on big businesses.
The Twitter boom has also triggered some distinctly old-school money politics, with charges that members of parliament are paying for followers to boost their popularity.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that accounts with 20,000 followers were changing hands for 2 million won (US$1,770).
South Korea’s parliamentary elections are essentially a dry run for the powerful presidency. That vote in December will be the key test of whether the Twitter--using liberals can turn their lock on cyberspace into hard political power.
Yu Chang-ju, who helped manage the victory of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and now advises him on new media strategy, said the number of Twitter users would double by the time of the presidential election to about 10 million, or about one-fifth of the population.