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Seoul and Busan Mayor By-Elections Spell Trouble for President Moon

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Seoul and Busan Mayor By-Elections Spell Trouble for President Moon

The ruling Democratic Party failed to keep the mayor positions in the country’s two biggest cities in by-elections on Wednesday. 

Seoul and Busan Mayor By-Elections Spell Trouble for President Moon

Oh Se-hoon, candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, holds flowers while watching televisions broadcasting the counting for the Seoul mayoral by-election at party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

Credit: Song Kyung-Seok/Pool Photo via AP

Last year, the mayors of both Seoul and Busan, both members of the ruling Democratic Party, became embroiled in sexual harassment scandals. The mayor of Seoul committed suicide while the Busan mayor stepped down, leaving both posts vacant. In a blow to the DP, citizens in Seoul and Busan chose the main opposition party’s candidates to take up the mayor positions in by-elections held on April 7.

Oh Se-hoon, the Seoul mayor candidate for the main opposition People Power Party, won 57.50 percent of the vote, overwhelming his opponent Park Young-sun from the ruling Democratic Party, who won 39.18 percent of the vote – an 18 point margin of victory.

Oh also won in all 25 administrative districts of Seoul. In Gangnam-gu, which has become synonymous with wealth, Oh won 73.54 percent of the vote, more than three times Park’s 24.32 percent.

Oh told local reporters that he saw his victory as “an order to help many citizens in pain by solving a mountain of tasks skillfully as soon as possible.”

Oh had resigned as a Seoul mayor 10 years ago after he failed to fulfill his will in a referendum aimed at opposing free school meals. He admitted that he was immature and apologized for his decision during the campaign this year, and succeeded to take back his office after 10 years.

The ruling Democratic Party had won the Seoul mayor election in 2018 and succeeded in garnering support in 24 administrative districts of Seoul – all except Seocho-gu, one of the conservative wealthy districts. But the party failed to maintain that support this time around.

In the Busan mayoral by-election, People Power Party candidate Park Hyung-joon beat Democratic Party candidate Kim Young-choon, 62.67 percent to 34.42 percent, nearly doubling Kim’s showing.

“I will repay the support of the citizens with a good correction to serve the citizens well,” Park said during his victory speech at his campaign office.

Oh and Park will start their official terms as mayor immediately after the election. Each will serve for 14 months, before the regular local elections set for June next year.

Although the voting day was not a national holiday, the turnout in Seoul and Busan was 58.2 percent and 52.7 percent, respectively. This is the first time in South Korea’s history that the turnout for by-elections for metropolitan government heads exceeded 50 percent.

Kim Tae-nyeon, interim leader and floor leader of the Democratic Party, held a press conference at the National Assembly and said that “the party accepts the public sentiment revealed through the election.” Kim added that the “Democratic leadership will take responsibility for the election results and resign.”

With that decision, the ruling Democratic Party will be having internal elections to elect the party head, floor leader, and supreme council members in a month.

President Moon Jae-in commented on the results of the elections through a press briefing by Kang Min-seok, a Blue House spokesperson. “I would take a lower attitude toward state affairs with heavier responsibilities,” Kang said in the briefing. Kang added that Moon’s will is to make steady efforts to realize the desperate demands of the people that emerged through the elections.

Throughout the campaigns, the Democratic Party attempted to raise questions over the morality of opposition candidates, including real estate speculation, but it has not been able to resolve public distrust caused by its own government officials’ land speculation scandals and soaring housing prices.

In addition, experts said it was even more difficult for the Democratic Party to win because both by-elections were necessitated by sexual harassment allegations against former Democratic mayors.

Local pollsters had been showing high support in Seoul and Busan for the main opposition party, but it was still a disaster for the Democratic Party to face the reality that it lost the confidence of the majority of citizens in South Korea’s two most populous cities. Rather than just local issues, the elections were seen as an indirect referendum on the Moon administration and the Democratic Party as a whole, one factor in the high turnout.

Experts say that Seoul and Busan citizens soured on the government and Democratic Party due to overlapping hits to its credibility: a failure to stabilize the real estate market and land speculation scandals at a time when the sex scandals of former Seoul and Busan mayors of the Democratic Party caused the by-elections in the first place.

“People judged the government’s incompetence and mismanagement through a vote, as the election represented the evaluation of the Moon administration’s performance,” Park Myung-ho, a professor of political science at Dongguk University in Seoul, told The Diplomat.

At the end of the election cycle, a presidential Blue House official and a ruling party lawmaker were found to have significantly raised rents in buildings they own. Park said their hypocrisy and self-righteousness galvanized citizens to vent their anger in the elections.

“The government needs to take the results of this election as a natural reality and switch to a final mode. The lame duck phenomenon is likely to proceed rapidly due to the results of this election,” Park said.

However, some experts disagree.

Park Won-ho, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul National University, told The Diplomat that the Moon administration is unlikely to face a lame duck situation, given that the ruling coalition holds 180 seats in the National Assembly.

“There are still loyal supporters for the Moon administration, so I don’t think there would be some moves within the Democratic Party that can bring a lame duck phenomenon,” Park said. Park added that Moon is unlikely to face lame duck status until the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate is elected in September. South Korean presidents are constitutionally limited to a single term, so Moon cannot stand for re-election.

In Seoul, the Democratic Party lost the mayorship to the conservative party for the first time since 2011, when it won control after Oh’s resignation. Meanwhile, Busan is once again a conservative city as the Democratic Party lost its chance to keep the mayor’s office after winning it for the first time in 2018.

Experts said voters in their 20s and 30s were the ones that led the ruling Democratic Party’s dismal performance in the elections.

“I am still not a supporter of the main opposition party, but I really didn’t want to vote for the Democratic Party’s Seoul mayor candidate,” Lee Young-ji, a college student in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “I was sick of witnessing the hypocrisy and incompetence of Moon administration and the Democratic Party.”

Lee and her friends voted for the candidates of the Democratic Party a year ago in the general elections, but they withdrew their support due to the government’s mishandling of the economy, real estate, and rate of youth employment.

The resounding victory on Wednesday has the People Power Party hoping to take the presidency back in next year’s election in March.

To make the best of public anger and criticism over the government and Democratic Party, the main opposition party had tried to unify all conservative opposition parties by selecting one conservative candidate for each mayoral election. Its efforts paid off, as the People Power Party’s candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote in both Seoul and Busan’s mayoral elections.

However, some experts argue that this devastating result for the Democratic Party will not have much impact on the 2022 presidential election. No one in the main opposition party has more than 5 percent support in early surveys on preferred presidential candidates.

Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi province, and Lee Nak-yeon, a former prime minister for Moon administration and former leader of the Democratic Party, are the favorites to succeed Moon from within his own party. But Yoon Seok-youl, a former prosecutor general, has been strong contender with ardent support from conservatives. Yoon is a symbolic conservative hawk who won fame for opposing the Moon administration’s move on prosecution reform. He is now among the top potential presidential candidates in recent polls, even though he is not a member of the main opposition party.

“Conservatives’ victories in Seoul & Busan will give them hope for next year’s presidential election, but it’s too soon to call that race,” tweeted Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. “They are still severely fragmented, have not won back the public’s trust, and [their] image is still plagued by their former president’s scandal.”