Enabling Environments for Civic Movements and the Dynamics of Democratic Transition - South Korea

Period of democratic transition: 1987
Pro-democracy civic movement: present

General Chun Doo-Hwan came to power in a military coup shortly after his predecessor's assassination in 1979. Chun presided over an authoritarian political system in which the national assembly was effectively controlled by the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP). Decision making was primarily in the hands of Chun and a small circle of advisers, while the press was tightly controlled and protests often violently suppressed.

In 1986, Chun, like several of his predecessors, considered passing a constitutional amendment that would grant him an additional term in office. However, his scheme produced considerable public backlash. Opposition parties formed coalitions with powerful student and labor groups and pressured the government through mass demonstrations and, in some cases, riots. Protesters demanded a new constitution under which the president would be elected in general elections rather than by a government-dominated electoral college. In early 1987, after the killing of a student protester while under interrogation, the protest movement grew rapidly and began to attract a broader base, including the South Korean middle class. A decision by Chun in April to suspend debate on constitutional reform was met with near universal disapproval. This sparked a new wave of demonstrations, culminating in June 1987 with thousands of students protesting the DJP's decision to nominate Roh Tae Woo, another military general, as Chun's successor. Days later, Roh accepted the opposition's demands and called for parliamentary and presidential elections. Relatively free and fair elections in December 1987 saw the DJP receive a plurality of votes and Roh receive the presidency, but two opposition parties together were able to form a majority bloc in Parliament. A revised constitution went into effect in 1988, guaranteeing basic rights, limiting the president to a single five-year term, and taking away his power to dissolve Parliament.

Opposition leader Kim Young-sam became the first civilian president since 1961 when he joined the ruling party to win the 1992 presidential election. However, in 1997 Kim lost the presidential election to Kim Dai-jung in the country's first peaceful transfer of power to an opposition candidate.

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