South Korea's ruling Democratic Party of Seoul mayoral candidate Park Young-sun fist-bumps with a voter during a campaign rally at Yeouido financial district on April 6, 2021, in Seoul. Photo: AFP/Chris Jung/NurPhoto

Note: This story has been updated with final results

SEOUL –  South Korea’s right wing has hit back with a vengeance, clinching landslide victories in the nation’s capital and its second city in by-elections on Wednesday.

President Moon Jae-in’s leftist Democratic Party was routed by the right wing opposition People’s Power Party, or PPP, which won a 57.5%-39% victory in Seoul and a 63 %-34% triumph in Busan. The PPP also grabbed 13 of 19 other local seats.

Nearly 12 million votes were in play in this nation of 52 million as two key by-elections – for the mayoral seats in the capital, Seoul, and the southeastern city of Busan – were contested today. Busan has just under 3 million eligible voters, while in Seoul, that number is 8.4 million.

Wednesday’s events suggest that the political pendulum has swung back. After losing both a 2017 presidential election and a 2020 National Election, Korean conservatives had been in utter disarray. 

The central issues in the recent politicking were necessarily domestically – indeed, locally – focused. Yet they have political ramifications that will be watched far beyond Korea’s border, for they are the last major plebiscite before the presidential election of March 2022.

The joy of opposition

President Moon said early Thursday that considers the result a “reprimand” from the public, but he will continue to operate with a “humble demeanor and heavy sense of responsibility.”

It is a disastrous reversal of fortune for the DPK after Moon’s presidential election win in 2017 and the party parliamentary election triumph in April 2020, when it captured an absolute majority of 180 seats in the 300-seat, unicameral National Assembly.

What a difference a year makes. But while this should all be grist to the right’s mill, the PPP is also showing off its political weaknesses.

A woman casts a ballot for the Seoul mayoral by-election at a polling station in Seoul on April 7, 2021. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

With South Korea now under moderate social distancing guidelines, the campaign has taken its usual form. Vans blaring high-volume campaign songs cruised the streets, while the candidates were shepherded around markets, took public transport and took upbeat – but masked – selfies with voters. 

Pundits were reluctant to call Wednesday’s votes forward indicators ahead of the presidential race, but made clear it reflects public sentiment.

“The presidential election is about a year away, and a year is a lifetime in politics,” said James Kim, a scholar who follows public opinion at think tank the Asan Institute, noting that the outcome of Seoul mayoral elections has generally not proven to be a leading indicator of presidential races.

“But it is a referendum on the ruling party,” Kim added. ‘So, in many ways, it’s a good test to see where the two major parties are as they head into the presidential election.”

Moon’s light dims

Multiple dynamics are apparent.

Although the DPK’s candidate for mayor of Seoul was female – Park Young-sun, former minister of SMEs and Startups, which has helped generate an excellent venture ecosystem nationwide – the ruling party was on the back foot in Wednesday’s by-elections: Both high-profile mayoral seats were vacated after sex abuse scandals involving male DPK incumbents.

Moreover, the key political talking point in Seoul coffee shops and chat rooms is perceived government failures in real estate policies. These are widely assessed to have resulted in higher taxes for landlords – but also higher prices for tenants.

Seoul house prices have soared so stratospherically under the current administration that even the greatest possible good fortune would still fall short for prospective home buyers: “Lotto jackpot no longer enough not buy Seoul apartment” thundered the country’s leading right-wing newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, on April 6.

Adding further fuel to this fire is a property speculation scandal that engulfed the national housing development corporation a month ago.

Open Democratic Party of Korea’s candidate for the Seoul mayoral election Kim Jin-ai speaks to the media during an interview outside the National Assembly on March 09, 2021, in Seoul. Photo: AFP/Chris Jung/NurPhoto

More broadly, the DPK is the party President Moon hails from.

Under South Korea’s electoral system, presidents are permitted only one five-year term and local political patience is notoriously short. In this unforgiving environment, the incumbent president customarily becomes a “lame duck” late in his or her term, as the bureaucracy, with an eye on opinion polls, becomes lethargic in promoting policy passed down by ministers.

Moon, to his credit, has largely avoided this thus far, partly due to his government’s impressive performance in containing Covid-19 without lockdowns. That enabled the country to deliver the best GDP growth in the OECD in 2020.

And unlike his despised predecessor Park Geun-hye, there has been no lethal disaster on Moon’s watch. Park was demonized after the deadly sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, but Moon has made public health and safety, notably around the pandemic, a core priority.

Moreover Moon, unlike Park who is now serving a compound 33-year prison sentence for corruption and abuse of power, appears to have swerved any personal scandals. 

However, he is suffering his lowest poll numbers ever and has suffered by association with the real estate problems and the country’s slow vaccination drive. Less than 2% of the population have been inoculated, to date.

This is all grist to the opposition mill. Yet the PPP, too, has an Achilles Heel.

The best candidate it could field was Oh Se-hoon. Oh is a former mayor of Seoul who, in a bizarre incident, quit City Hall after losing a referendum on free school lunches – which he opposed – in 2011.

However, Oh’s position in the Seoul election was massively strengthened in a move that pollsters say is fatal to Park’s chances. Wannabe third-force politician and repeated also-ran Ahn Cheol-soo dropped out of the race to avoid splitting the opposition vote.

While Park has pushed modest plans for public-friendly redevelopment and reconstruction, Oh has returned to a flagship plan dating back to his previous mayorship: the construction of a major international business district in central Seoul’s Yongsan area.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be following the results closely. Photo: AFP/The Blue House

Frustrations, vacuums, alternatives

Voters who spoke to Asia Times seemed more anti-ruling party than pro-opposition.

“It’s not that I like No 2 [Oh], it’s that I think No 1’s [Park’s] party is not doing well,” said a Seoul university student, with reference to the candidates’ numbers on the ballot papers.

Her sentiments were echoed by a 50-something restaurant owner and operator who served Asia Times’ Seoul correspondent lunch on Wednesday.

“The DPK promise everything and deliver nothing,” he said. “We feel betrayed.”

These kinds of sentiment may point toward sunny uplands for the PPP next March. But the right-wing is bereft of any obvious candidate with the necessary blend of experience and charisma to make a realistic run in the presidential race next year.

This is a “huge vacuum,” said Asan Institute’s Kim, though he said he was encouraged by Ahn’s agreement to duck out of the race to upgrade Oh’s chances.

“These kinds of moves are encouraging,” he said. “We are seeing some degree of coalition formation in the conservative opposition, that incorporates moderates.”

Clearly, there is dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians.

Though South Koreans fought for and won full democracy as recently as the 1980s, younger voters voiced the kind of weariness with party politics that is common among longer-established democracies.

“I think everyone knows why this is happening,” a female college student who lives outside Seoul said – a reference to the sex-abuse scandals that rocked city halls in both Busan and Seoul and led to the by-elections.

She indicated that younger voters of her acquaintance may ignore Park and Oh and tick boxes further down the ballot.

“Those of us in our 20s were expecting solutions to this, but we are hearing nothing from either main party – it’s frustrating,” she said. “I think this is why candidates 3-12 are going to get votes.”

Beyond the bilateral DPK-PPP battle at the top of the ballot papers, there were 10 further candidates for Seoul mayor from small or independent bases.

The colorful Huh Kyung-young of the National Revolutionary Party, an early supporter of universal basic income, promised 70% tax rebates and would supply water to Seoul from more distant, non-polluted sources.

Lee Soo-bong of the People’s Welfare Party vowed payments to the self-employed and creating 100,000 jobs for youth by 2025.

And another independent, Oh Tae-yang, ran on an LGBTQ platform.