Former prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol is leading South Korea's right wing into the March 2022 presidential election. Photo: Facebook

SEOUL – Seventeen days before South Koreans vote in their next president, one of the country’s most severely addicted political junkies thinks the right-wing opposition is set to overturn a trend that has prevailed in South Korea since the country democratized in 1987.

In all previous presidential elections thus far, two consecutive terms have been won by conservatives, followed by two consecutive terms by progressives, and so on.

According to that trend, the progressive administration of President Moon Jae-in – who is constitutionally limited to a single term in office – should win when polls open on March 9.

And certainly, history is one of the more reliable metrics on which to base future expectations. So far, the race between leftist firebrand Lee Jae-myung, the great hope of Moon’s left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea, and Yoon Seok-youl, a former prosecutor who is leading the rightist People Power Party into battle, has been too tight to call.

Amid heated policy debates, furious mud-slinging and a surprising emphasis on the backgrounds of both candidates’ wives, both Lee and Yoon have overtaken each other in different surveys.

Recent polls have had Yoon ahead, but – once again showing the tightness of the race – a poll published on Monday put Lee marginally back in the lead. And with a week being a long time in Korean politics, much could change between now and March 9.

Lee Jae-myung, the great hope of Moon’s leftist Democratic Party of Korea. Photo: WikiCommons

The magic metric to watch

But Heo Jin-jae, who heads public opinion analysis at Gallup Korea and who has covered seven presidential elections since joining the South Korean branch of the global polling firm in 1992, thinks the paradigm that has held since 1987 is ready to crack.

“The conservatives have very good grounds for the upcoming presidential election,” Heo, who spoke to foreign reporters in Seoul on Monday about electoral trends, said. “They have recovered the support of the old and increased the support of the young.”

If Heo’s analysis is correct, that would be an incredible turnaround from the last presidential election. The 2017 plebiscite saw a rout of the right-wing after an influence-peddling and corruption scandal generated massive street protests that ended up sweeping conservative Park Geun-hye out of office and into prison.

It was far from clear whether younger voters, who were disgusted by the scandal, and older voters, disgusted that Park’s party had thrown her to the wolves, could coalesce enough to present a credible threat come election time.

But multiple indications are that the right is not only back in the running; according to Heo, the critical indicator is on Yoon’s side.

The core metric to watch in the March 9 battle, Heo advised, is not any specific policy initiative or voter breakdown by local area, age or even ideology. Instead, it boils down to one central question.

“The key point for the upcoming election is evaluation of the current administration,” Heo said.

Since polling for the current campaign started, Heo said, the majority of those who want a change of administration has consistently outnumbered those who do not. The latest Gallup number, from the first week of February, found 55% were pro-change and 38% for the status quo.

Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl is a front-running, right-leaning presidential candidate. Photo: WikiCommons

What has gone wrong?

South Korea watchers might be reasonably forgiven for being puzzled by the ongoing right-wing renaissance. After all, the country looks, at first glance, to have done pretty nicely under the Moon government.

Granted, Moon failed in his highest-profile policy – North Korean engagement. However, North Korea is traditionally of more interest to pundits and editors than the average voter.

Meanwhile, despite reservations among many US conservatives, Moon kept the US alliance intact, though he oversaw a deterioration in relations with Japan. Domestic issues, however, are more important for the average Kim, Park or Lee.  

Among those issues, South Korea has been widely praised for its “zero lockdown,” high-tech response to Covid-19, as well as one of the lowest per capita death rates from the disease in the world.

Its macro-economy has coasted through the pandemic, with its chief exports, semiconductors, flying off the shelves to the point where the country has elbowed its way into the G10, nudging Russia into 11th place.

And in an unprecedented startup boom, the country is enjoying a world-beating surge in unicorns – hosting the world’s sixth-largest flock worldwide, according to research published by Statista in January.

That is particularly astonishing given that South Korea has traditionally been a nation where capital has been monopolized by the dominant family-run conglomerates.

However, a closer inspection finds matters looking less rosy.

While North America, Western Europe and even neighboring Japan have seen their Omicron waves peak, over the last three weeks, South Korea has been seeing infection numbers surge by record highs on an almost daily basis.

That suggests the feel-good factor of the successful containment policies of 2020 and 2021 have worn off among an increasingly pandemic-weary populace.

And the country is riven by economic inequality – or at least, highly emotive perceptions thereof. These are exemplified by such world-beating classist critiques as the Oscar-winning film Parasite and the hit Netflix show Squid Game – to the point where youth commonly dub their country “Hell.”

A South Korean protester in a Squid Game costume. Image: AFP

Youth unemployment is customarily about median for the OECD and has fallen dramatically over the last year to about 6%. However, the current government has badly mismanaged housing policies, with the result that metropolitan homeownership is now a distant dream for those without a step on the property ladder, alienating many young voters.

As a progressive candidate, Moon started out with “great support from the young generation,” Heo said. But “over the last year, those in their 20s and 30s have evaluated the [incumbent] administration in a negative way.”

Sexism rife

South Korea is also riven by sexism. While the country, highly unusually, boasts a better-educated female than male workforce, its gender pay gap is the highest among all developed countries, according to the OECD.

Given this sexist outlook, the feminine-friendly policies of the current administration could backfire at the polls.

“Because of female-concentrated policies, a lot of young males have changed from progressive to conservative,” Heo said.

That could prove doubly problematic for the ruling camp, given gender voting patterns. “The intention to vote is much lower among females in their 20s than among males in their 20s,” Heo said.

Still, not all polls, or pollsters, are equal.

A poll of 1,002 adults published on Monday found that the progressive Lee was back in the lead, with 43.7% support against 42.2% for Yoon.

However, Heo defended Gallup’s methodology, based on interviews with voters.

He maintained that because some other polling companies use automated telephone interviews that require respondents to jump through hoops – such as inputting multiple answers into phone keyboards – only the most politically committed respondents make it to the end of the survey.

And that is important, he said, as about 20% of the electorate – a far higher margin than any poll has found separates the two major candidates – remain ideologically uncommitted to the left or right.