SEOUL – In his last year in office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in saw his approval ratings soar. Its trademark diplomacy in North Korea remains in tatters. Citizens are furious at his repeatedly failed attempts to stop soaring house prices.
And on Wednesday, voters in South Korea’s two largest cities dealt another heavy blow to the beleaguered leader.
Mr. Moon’s Democratic Party lost the mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan to the conservative opposition, the People’s Power Party. Critics are calling the results of the two by-elections a referendum on Mr. Moon and his government.
“The people have expressed their anger against the Moon government through these elections,” said Kim Chong-in, leader of the People’s Power Party, referring to the wide margins with which his candidates have won.
South Korea’s constitution limits Mr. Moon to a single five-year term. But he had hoped that a candidate backed by his party would succeed him in the presidential election next March and continue his progressive legacy, including a policy of engagement with North Korea.
Wednesday’s mayoral election showed the Democratic Party faces daunting challenges as voters once loyal to Mr Moon – especially those between the ages of 20 and 30 – dropping out of him en masse.
Oh Se-hoon, the People Power Party candidate, won the race in Seoul, the capital of 10 million people. He routed Park Young-sun, the Democratic Party candidate and former member of Mr. Moon’s cabinet, by more than 18 percentage points, according to the results of the votes announced by the National Election Commission.
The mayor of Seoul is considered the second most powerful elected official in South Korea after the president.
In Busan, on the southeastern end of the Korean peninsula, Park Heong-joon, another candidate affiliated with the opposition party, beat his Democratic Party rival by another wide margin, according to the commission.
Seoul’s by-election was called after Park Won-soon, the former mayor, died by suicide last year over charges of sexual harassment. Former Busan mayor Oh Keo-don resigned last year amid accusations of sexual misconduct by several female subordinates.
The former mayors were both members of Mr. Moon’s Democratic Party and close allies of the president. Their fall weakened the moral position of Mr. Moon’s progressive camp, which presented itself as a clean, transparent and equal-minded alternative to its conservative opponents. Mr Moon’s two immediate predecessors – Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak – were both conservatives and are now in jail on corruption convictions.
Mr. Moon was elected in 2017, filling the power vacuum created by Ms. Park’s impeachment. As a former human rights lawyer, he fascinated the nation by promising a “just and equitable” society. He vehemently criticized an ingrained culture of privilege and corruption that he said had taken root while the Tories were in power, and vowed to create a level playing field for young voters who grew weary of the diminishing employment opportunities and ever increasing expansion. income gap.
Mr. Moon spent much of his first two years in office struggling to ease growing tensions between North Korea and the United States, successfully negotiating diplomacy between the two countries. He turned more to domestic issues after the two summit meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald J. Trump failed to strike a deal on nuclear disarmament or the easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
But things quickly turned sour on the home front.
In 2019, huge outdoor gatherings erupted over accusations of counterfeiting and preferential treatment in college and internship applications around Cho Kuk’s daughter, Mr. Moon’s former justice minister and one of its closest allies.
The scandal flew in the face of Mr. Moon’s campaign pledge to create “a world without privilege,” and sparked outrage against the elite’s “golden spoon” children, who slipped into prime universities. plan and cushy jobs while their “dirt-cuoon” struggled to make ends meet in South Korea’s hampered economy.
South Koreans expressed their growing cynicism over what they saw as the hypocritical practices of Mr. Moon’s progressive allies with a popular saying: naeronambul. It basically translates to, “If they do, it’s romance; if others do, they call it an extramarital affair.
Nonetheless, the Democratic Party won by a landslide in last year’s parliamentary elections, as Mr. Moon capitalized on his growing popularity around South Korea’s largely successful battle against the coronavirus. But the campaign against Mr. Moon’s virus has faded.
In recent months, South Koreans have become frustrated with prolonged social distancing restrictions, a struggling economy, and the government’s inability to deliver vaccines quickly enough. On Wednesday, the government reported 668 new coronavirus infections, the largest single-day increase in three months.
Mr. Moon’s most devastating setback came last month when officials at the Korea Land and Housing Corporation – the state’s developer – were accused of using inside insider information to profit from housing programs. government housing development. Kim Sang-jo, Mr. Moon’s senior economic policy adviser, resigned last month when it was revealed that his family had dramatically increased rent on an apartment in Seoul just days before the government ‘imposes a cap on rent increases.
“People had hoped that even if they were incompetent, the Moon government would at least be ethically superior to its conservative rivals,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “What we are seeing in the election results is the long-accumulated discontent of the people over the explosion of ‘naeronambul’ behavior by the lunar government. Moon has now become a lame president.
The real estate scandal dominated the campaign leading up to Wednesday’s election. Opposition candidates have called Mr. Moon’s government a “den of thieves.” Mr. Moon’s Democratic Party has called Mr. Oh, Seoul’s new mayor, an incorrigible “liar”.
Mr Oh resigned as mayor of Seoul in 2011 after his campaign to end free lunches for all schoolchildren failed to gain enough support.
This month’s pre-election polls showed voters planning to vote for Mr. Oh would not do so because they considered him morally superior to his Democratic Party rival. Instead, it was because they wanted to “pass judgment on the government of Moon Jae-in.”