SEOUL—Just a year ago, South Korean President
left-leaning Democratic Party was riding high. It had just won a historic three-fifths majority in the country’s legislature. Voters rewarded the administration’s handling of the pandemic.
But now, South Korea’s conservatives are making a comeback. Hours after the polls closed Wednesday night, the country’s right-leaning People Power Party looked poised to emerge victorious in the mayoral elections for Seoul and Busan—the country’s two largest cities.
Conservative candidates held double-digit advantages over opponents from Mr. Moon’s party, with roughly 80% of the vote counted in Busan and about half in Seoul. Votes are expected to be fully tallied by Thursday morning.
The final race outcomes will provide a snapshot of national sentiment less than a year before South Korea’s next presidential election in March. If the country’s conservatives maintain their momentum, a right-leaning South Korean president would likely adopt vastly different foreign-policy views at a delicate time in the region with a more assertive China, an increasingly nuclear-armed North Korea and a U.S. shoring up its alliances.
To Korea watchers, the mayoral races illustrate the challenge ahead for Mr. Moon as public support for his ruling party slides. Many South Korean voters vacillate between the two major parties and tend to make up their minds just weeks before presidential votes.
For now though, voters like Han Hyeon-seung are questioning their backing for Mr. Moon. Ms. Han, a 22-year-old manager of a salad restaurant in central Seoul, said she had grown disillusioned with Mr. Moon, largely due to her frustration over his handling of South Korea’s third coronavirus wave that erupted last fall.
Running a restaurant under pandemic conditions has meant contending with measures that have dented her sales. “Moon has lost credibility,” she said. “He did a good job containing coronavirus in the beginning, but the efforts have fizzled out.”
South Korea’s main conservative party captured a 29% public support rating, its highest mark since 2016, according to a Gallup Korea poll conducted late last month. This followed a series of recent scandals in which civil servants and politicians under Mr. Moon were alleged to have profited from real estate deals using insider information—as South Koreans contend with some of the world’s fastest-rising home prices.
Meanwhile, Mr. Moon and his Democratic Party have been on a downhill slide. Mr. Moon’s most recent approval rating was 32%, his lowest since he was elected president in 2017. His party’s support rating also hit its lowest levels in five years.
“These mayoral elections became a referendum on the ruling party,” said
a research fellow at Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank.
South Korea’s political right and left have widely different foreign-policy views. Under Mr. Moon, the government has given priority to inter-Korean cooperation, avoided zero-sum language about the U.S.-China rivalry and taken a pro-diplomacy approach that has had a “net stabilizing effect in the region,” said Jessica J. Lee, a Korea specialist at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based think tank
South Korea’s conservatives in the past have taken a more confrontational stance with North Korea and expressed skepticism about China. Right-leaning presidents have also aligned more with Washington on security, showing more appetite for large-scale military exercises with the U.S. or greenlighting the installation of an American missile-defense system that angered Beijing and Pyongyang.
A right-leaning South Korean president adopting a traditional foreign-policy playbook “will likely increase tensions on the peninsula and make denuclearization less likely,” Ms. Lee said.
South Korean conservatives have lately appeared more supportive toward Washington’s growing concerns about Beijing than their liberal counterparts.
Last month, the conservative party’s chairman said South Korea should join forces with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India—a grouping known as the Quad—to work together against an increasingly assertive China, just as U.S. Secretary of State
was visiting Seoul.
“South Korean conservatives have found their political legitimacy through Seoul’s alliance with the U.S.,” said Kim Meen-geon, a professor of politics at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
“This now means more support for policies on China that align closer to Washington,” she said.
South Korean public opinion is firmly behind the conservatives when it comes to China, recent opinion polls show. More than 80% of South Koreans view China as a national security threat, while 60% see it as an economic threat as well, according to a poll released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank, this week.
The winners of the Seoul and Busan mayor elections will hold office for about a year, as they are finishing terms started by others. Seoul’s ex-mayor was found dead last July in an apparent suicide—after his ex-secretary went to the police to file a complaint accusing him of sexual misconduct. Busan’s former mayor resigned months earlier due to a sexual harassment scandal.
South Korea’s conservatives lost three major elections in three years—and renamed their party three times during that period. Last year they renamed it the People Power Party. A victory in the mayoral races in the country’s two biggest cities would give them momentum, local political experts say.
“If the conservatives win, it would mark a revival for them and a return of the conservatives as a legitimate political power base that might contend for the presidency,” said Kang Won-taek, a professor of politics at Seoul National University.
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