Angry public chastises ruling party in key S. Korea mayoral elections

This is a big blow to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has about one year left in his term. With his inevitable lame-duck status, it will not be easy to achieve positive results in the face of a mountain of challenges.

In mayoral elections in the capital city of Seoul and in South Korea’s second-largest city Busan, both leftist ruling party candidates suffered crushing defeats, losing to conservative opposition candidates. The opposition party called for a “judgment on the Moon administration,” and the elections were seen as a prelude to next spring’s presidential race.

The elections were held after the suicide of one former mayor and the resignation of the other amid sexual harassment allegations. Both belonged to the ruling party. It can be said that the election results reflected the anger of voters at the lack of action by the Moon administration in achieving its goal of “realizing a fair society.”

A scandal over real estate speculation has also worked against the ruling party. Employees of public housing developer Korea Land and Housing Corp., lawmakers, officials of the presidential office and others have allegedly been buying up land that was certain to rise in value based on insider information. More than 600 people are reportedly under investigation over the scandal.

Condominium prices in Seoul have soared by more than 60% since the start of the Moon administration, making it difficult to buy a home in large cities. It is not surprising that the public has reacted strongly.

South Korea has achieved economic development led by conglomerate-related large companies, but it is difficult to say that the general public is experiencing affluence. There has been no progress in improving the difficulties young people face finding jobs, as promised by the Moon administration. The fertility rate has continued to decline and it is now below 1.

Improving the lives of the people, correcting social disparities and fighting political corruption will undoubtedly be points of contention in the next presidential election.

The appropriateness of prosecution reform pushed forward by the Moon administration has also be called into question. In the reform, the administration aimed to reduce the power of prosecutors by creating a new specialized organization to investigate corruption cases involving high-ranking government officials. However, there has been persistent criticism that “the reform has a political aim of blocking prosecutors from investigating the administration.”

Some opposition party members have been hoping the former prosecutor general, who was forced to resign from the post after a fierce confrontation with the administration over the reform, will run for the presidency. The race is likely to be a free-for-all as there do not appear to be any standout candidates for the presidential election among existing politicians from ruling and opposition parties.

Moon has taken the defeat of his ruling party seriously, saying that he will carry out his duties with a “humble demeanor and heavy sense of responsibility.”

However, it will be even more difficult for Moon, with his leadership declining, to take action to resolve legal issues concerning South Korean former requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula and former so-called comfort women.

It would be irresponsible for Moon to leave relations with Japan unattended in a state of deterioration. During the remainder of his term, he must do everything possible to restore ties.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 9, 2021.