ON A balmy Saturday afternoon, crowds cluster around an election van on the busiest shopping street in Gwangju. Jaunty white-gloved women, dressed in the blue of the liberal Minjoo party, have just performed a mincing dance number. Moon Jae-in (pictured), the party’s candidate, has come to rally the citizens of the south-western city ten days before the presidential election on May 9th.

The Korean pop music blasted from speakers outside gleaming shopfronts makes the streets pulsate. As recently as 1980, they shook because of the tanks rumbling down them. Paratroopers crushed an uprising in the city against Chun Doo-hwan, who had seized power in a coup after the assassination of Park Chung-hee, another military dictator. Hundreds of Gwangju’s citizens were killed.

Seven years later there was another uprising against Mr Chun’s rule—this one successful. Millions flooded the streets of Seoul, the capital, and other big cities to protest over the death of a student at the hands of the strongman’s torturers. A struggle that had once been the preserve of student activists and labour unions spread to housewives and the “necktie brigade” of salarymen, who came out of their offices to demonstrate. After a crippling war with North Korea and nearly three decades of authoritarian rule, South Koreans at last secured the direct and free presidential election they had been demanding. A country that was already a model of development, having sprouted huge carmaking and shipbuilding industries that were the envy of Asia, was now proving that breakneck industrialisation and democracy could complement each other—an inspiration to political activists everywhere.

Back to the barricades

Thirty years on, dogged South Korean protesters have turned the country’s politics upside down once again. Mass demonstrations spurred the National Assembly to impeach the president, Park Geun-hye, paving the way for the impending election. The immediate cause of the protests was Ms Park’s abuse of power: she shared state secrets with an old friend and colluded with her to extort money from big companies. But the scandal aroused such passion—several marches in Seoul attracted as many as 1m people—because it seemed emblematic of a broader concern, with parallels all around the world: that the system is rigged in favour of the elite, and that politicians seem incapable of responding to the grievances of ordinary people.

On the face of things, ordinary people have got their way. Politicians at first pooh-poohed the demonstrations. One MP scoffed that the candles the protesters carried could be snuffed out by a gust of wind; in response, the marchers brought electric lights instead. (In Gwangju some resorted to flaming torches.) As the protests grew into the biggest since 1987, politicians began to take notice. In the end, the National Assembly voted to impeach Ms Park by the hefty margin of 234 to 56. Many MPs from her Saenuri party voted against her. The eight justices of the constitutional court unanimously upheld the assembly’s decision, even though two of them had been appointed by Ms Park.

Both Ms Park and the friend at the centre of the scandal are now in jail while on trial over it. Lee Jae-yong, the boss of Samsung, South Korea’s biggest company, is behind bars too, accused of giving money to organisations controlled by Ms Park’s friend in return for government support for a controversial restructuring at the conglomerate. (He denies the charges.) Mr Moon, who has promised to stamp out cronyism, leads the presidential race.

Yet the massive protests were about much more than bringing Ms Park to book. A sense of injustice had been simmering for years. Young South Koreans are deeply anxious. The number of graduates out of a job, or who have given up looking for one, recently exceeded 3.5m out of a total of roughly 14m. An educational rat-race and intense competition for socially respected jobs, concentrated in the biggest conglomerates, makes life for teens and 20-somethings stressful. Long hours and low pay make lesser jobs a grind too.

Young Koreans have for some time been known as the sam-po or three-renunciation generation, since they have neither the time nor the resources for dating, marriage or children. More recently the term has evolved to o-po (five renunciations, adding housing and skill-building) and even chil-po (seven, adding hobbies and hope), as young people complain that they must give up ever more just to earn a living. They have nicknamed the country the “hellish kingdom”.

Their disillusion is compounded by the knowledge that those with money and connections can evade the rat-race. In parallel surveys in 44 countries conducted by the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, South Korea was the only place where the most commonly cited path to success in life was knowing the right people. The friend of Ms Park at the centre of the scandal, Choi Soon-sil, is alleged to have used some of the money she extracted from big companies to pay for her daughter’s competitive horse-riding. She is also said to have induced a prestigious university to change its admissions criteria to make skill at dressage a plus, to ensure that her daughter won a place. These claims sent ordinary families undergoing exam hell into a fury. The supposedly equitable admissions process for universities is one of the few ways that South Koreans from humble backgrounds can get ahead.

Ms Park won the presidency in 2012 thanks to older voters who remembered with fondness the regime of her father, Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s military dictator from 1961 to 1979. He is credited with initiating the country’s dizzying economic ascent: since 1960 its annual GDP per person fattened by a factor of 20, to almost $40,000, after adjusting for inflation and the local cost of living (see chart).

Park may be gone but resentment lingers

Many in this conservative, older generation view demands for social and political change as a messy, worrying distraction from the existential threat that North Korea continues to pose. But their children, born in the 1960s (and known as the 386ers, after Intel’s then-widely-used microchip), balk at the authoritarianism that Park justified on the grounds of national security. They formed their new, liberal ideology in stark opposition to it.

Today South Korea’s youth are pushing a third narrative: despite development and democratisation, they feel that they are living in Daehan Mangguk, the Failed State of Korea, a play on South Korea’s official name, Daehan Minguk, the Republic of Korea. According to Pew’s surveys, 20-something South Koreans are the only youngsters who are more pessimistic about their future income than their parents are on their behalf. Economic growth, after all, has slowed markedly of late. Only two young South Koreans in ten are satisfied with the direction of their country, compared with four in ten of those aged 50 and over—and that despite the fact that rates among the elderly of both poverty and suicide are the highest in the rich world.

Black marks

Ms Park seemed to have no feel whatsoever for the public sense of disillusion. She ruled the country like a queen, isolated from voters. She seldom gave interviews or press conferences, and often holed herself up in the presidential mansion, the Blue House. Her chief-of-staff, Kim Ki-choon, was her father’s former spy chief. He is now on trial for orchestrating a blacklist under Ms Park of 10,000 artists deemed anti-government or left-leaning. The government withheld funding from exhibitions, films and performances involving anyone on the list.

Another incident that fuelled public ire was the sinking in 2014 of the Sewol, a passenger ferry. Hundreds of schoolchildren died because of a botched rescue; the captain was among the first to abandon ship. Ms Park was absent for much of the crisis, and has yet to explain fully her whereabouts that day. The trust of the young in the state’s ability to protect them fell from 47% before the accident to 8%, according to a poll conducted four months later.

All this has sharpened a sense that the gains of 1987 have not been built on. Kim Soon-heung of the Korea Social Research Centre, a think-tank in Gwangju, says the transformation to a fully fledged democracy has been delayed; compared with the country’s breakneck industrialisation, its democratisation has slowed. Many fear a comedown after the heady success of the protests. Some draw parallels with 1987, when a split in the pro-democracy movement allowed another general and former coup leader, Roh Tae-woo, to win the presidency with only 37% of the vote.

Mr Moon is no Mr Roh. Though certainly a familiar face—he narrowly lost to Ms Park in 2012—he has promised voters “regime change” after almost a decade of conservative rule, including the rooting out of elite corruption. He has led national polls for four months, garnering around 40% support in the run-up to the one-round election. Another liberal, Ahn Cheol-soo, a software tycoon who also ran in the previous race, is in second place, with around half Mr Moon’s support. The leading conservative, Hong Joon-pyo, has climbed in the polls, but still garners less than 20%.

At Mr Moon’s rally in Gwangju, Minjoo activists promised to carry forward the “spirit of May 18th”, a reference to the date of Gwangju’s uprising in 1980. He has made vague promises about amending the constitution to reduce the powers of the presidency and thus limit the scope for abuses like Ms Park’s.

The “imperial presidency” is indeed a problem, says Lee Sook-jong, a professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. The ruling party typically dominates all positions within government; the president names the heads of most agencies or has a strong say in their appointment. Yet Ms Lee notes that despite such vast powers, presidents often become lame ducks early on, because they are limited to a single five-year term—a safeguard from 1987 intended to prevent a return to authoritarianism.

Park may be gone but resentment lingers

Parties, meanwhile, are constantly mutating to stay in power. Since the republic was founded in 1948, the main liberal party has changed its name 14 times and splintered 11 times; its conservative counterpart has fared little better, with ten name-swaps and ten fractures. The endless manoeuvring makes it impossible to pursue a concerted legislative agenda—and hard for voters to keep track. Citizens do not feel that their MPs represent them, which is perhaps why they channel their anger at the president. Only 9% trust the legislature; four-fifths say the previous parliament did a bad job, too. Ms Park dismissed the National Assembly as “vegetative”.

Others point to a lack of diversity in the media, which are bad at articulating public demands. The mainstream press is dominated by “Cho-joong-dong”, a triumvirate of conservative newspapers that toes the state line and self-censors on contentious nationalist issues. All three are controlled by rich families. In its World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders placed South Korea in 70th position last year, below Haiti and Malawi.

Yet signs of change are sprouting. South Koreans were taken by surprise when the most conservative of the three big newspapers, Chosun Ilbo, was among the outlets that broke the news of Ms Park’s wrongdoings last autumn. In March the ministry of culture said it would put up a bill to guarantee artists’ rights and create an independent watchdog. It will provide 8.5bn won ($7.5m) to revive projects starved of funding because of the blacklist.

Mr Moon, too, has been doing his bit to defy expectations. To many, he represents the old-school dovish liberalism of those who fought for democracy in the 1980s; as he spoke in Gwangju, a huge banner was unfurled above the crowd with pictures of two crusading liberal presidents, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, whose legacy he promises to uphold. But he also says he wants to win the election not just in his party’s stronghold around Gwangju, but in the conservative heartlands of the south-east as well, where he officially launched his campaign. He has made much of his military service, and abandoned his most dovish stances regarding North Korea, to appeal to nervous hawkish voters.

South Koreans, meanwhile, are growing more comfortable with speaking out. In the 1980s many parents discouraged their children from joining anti-government demonstrations, which often turned violent, leading to mass arrests. This time they went together, sometimes with grandparents in tow. Protesters handed flowers to riot police. Crowds sang along to celebrity performances, snacking from food stalls set up for the occasion. Jeong Moon-young of The May 18 Memorial Foundation, an NGO in Gwangju, says that young people want to have fun while demanding change.

In a country with such stark generational splits, Mr Jeong says the protests against Ms Park should be celebrated as a rare “meeting of memory and ages”. On the weekend of Mr Moon’s rally, a group of young South Koreans gathered on the other side of Gwangju, at Chonnam University, where the protests of 1980 began. They were commemorating Park Seung-hee, a former student. She set herself on fire in 1991 to challenge continuing police violence under President Roh. But no tears were shed; instead, students staged a play in which her stand inspired a modern-day student to join the protests against Ms Park. An audience of classmates and parents cheered the newly minted protester on.