SEOUL – In his last year of office, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea saw his approval ratings in a downward spiral. His signature North Korean diplomacy remains in tatters. Citizens rage over his repeatedly failed attempts to stop rising house prices.
And on Wednesday, voters in South Korea's two largest cities dealt another crushing blow to the beleaguered leader.
Mr Moon's Democratic Party lost the Seoul and Busan mayoral elections to the conservative opposition, the People Power Party. Critics call the results of the two midterm elections a referendum on Mr Moon and his government.
"People expressed their anger at the Moon's government through this election," said Kim Chong-in, head of the People Power Party, referring to the wide margins at which her candidates won.
South Korea's constitution limits Mr. Moon to a single term of five years. But he had hoped that a party-backed candidate would succeed him in the March presidential election and carry on his progressive legacy, including a policy of involvement with North Korea.
Wednesday's mayoral election showed that the Democratic Party faces major challenges as voters who were once loyal to Mr. Moon – especially those in their 20s and 30s – are leaving it en masse.
People Power Party candidate Oh Se-hoon won the race in Seoul, the capital of 10 million people. He beat Park Young-sun, the Democratic Party candidate and a former member of Mr. Moon's cabinet, by more than 18 percentage points, according to the voting results announced by the National Election Commission.
The mayor of Seoul is considered South Korea's second most powerful elected official after the president.
In Busan, on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, Park Heong-joon, another candidate affiliated with the opposition party, beat his Democratic Party rival by a wide margin, the committee said.
The by-election in Seoul was named after Park Won-Soon, the former mayor, died of suicide last year following allegations of sexual harassment. Former Busan mayor Oh Keo-don resigned last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct from multiple female subordinates.
The former mayors were both members of Mr. Moon & # 39; s Democratic Party and the President's closest allies. Their demise weakened the moral status of Mr. Moon's progressive camp, which has established itself as a clean, transparent and equal 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 prison after convictions on corruption charges.
Mr. Moon was elected in 2017, filling the power vacuum created by Ms. Park's impeachment. As a former human rights lawyer, he enchanted the nation by promising a "fair and just" society. He vehemently criticized a deep-seated culture of privilege and corruption that he believed had taken root when conservatives were in power, and vowed to create a level playing field for young voters who have grown weary of dwindling employment and a widening income gap.
Mr. Moon spent much of his first two years in power struggling to quell escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States, successfully brokering diplomacy between the two countries. He shifted his focus more to domestic issues after the two summits between North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald J. Trump failed to negotiate a deal on nuclear disarmament or ease tensions on it. Korean Peninsula.
But it also quickly turned sour on the home front.
In 2019, large open-air rallies erupted over allegations of forgery and preferential treatment in college and internship applications surrounding the daughter of Cho Kuk, Mr Moon's former Justice Minister and one of his closest allies.
The scandal flew in light of Mr. Moon's election pledge to create "a world without privileges," sparking outrage at the elite's "golden spoon" kids, who slipped into the best universities and soft jobs while their "& # Dirt-spoon colleagues struggled to make ends meet in South Korea's poor economy.
South Koreans expressed their growing cynicism about what they perceived to be the hypocritical practices of Mr. Moon's progressive allies with a popular saying: naeronambul. It roughly translates to, "If they do it, it's a romance; if others do it, they call it an extramarital affair."
Nevertheless, the Democratic Party won by a landslide in parliamentary elections last year, when Mr. Moon used his rising popularity around South Korea's largely successful fight against the coronavirus. But Mr. Moon has lost its shine.
In recent months, South Koreans have become frustrated with long-term social restrictions, a struggling economy and the government's failure to provide vaccines quickly enough. On Wednesday, the government reported 668 new coronavirus infections, the highest increase in one day in three months.
Mr. Moon's most devastating setback came last month when officials at the Korea Land and Housing Corporation – the state developer – were accused of using insider information to monetize government housing programs. Kim Sang-jo, Mr Moon's chief economic policy adviser, resigned last month when it was revealed that his family had significantly increased the rent of an apartment in Seoul just days before the government imposed a ceiling on rent increases.
"People had hoped that even if they were incompetent, the Moon's government would be at least ethically superior to their conservative rivals," said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. "What we see in the election results is people's long-standing dissatisfaction with the 'naeronambul' behavior of the explosive lunar government. Moon has now become a lame duck president."
The real estate scandal dominated the campaign leading up to Wednesday's election. Opposition candidates called Mr. Moon's government a 'den of thieves'. Mr. Moon's Democratic Party called Mr. Oh, the new mayor in Seoul, an incorrigible "liar."
Pre-election inquiries this month found that voters who planned 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 Moon Jae-in's government".