On April 7, 2021, early elections were held for the heads of four administrative units, including the mayors of the country’s two largest cities of Seoul and Busan, as well as 17 deputies of local legislative assemblies in the Republic of Korea. Their result is an indicator of public sentiment before the presidential elections of next year, since almost 10 million people out of 52 million of the country’s population live in Seoul, in Busan with just over 2.9 million voters.
Remember that early elections for the mayor of Seoul were held due to the July suicide of the previous head of the metropolitan administration, Park Won Sun, who was suspected of sexual harassment. But if Park’s case was murky, and the author sees is as a complex plot driving a dangerous competitor to suicide, and not harassment, then the previous mayor of Busan, Oh Go Dong, was unequivocally involved in harassing employees, which is why he was forced to resign in April 2020, and is currently under investigation.
The ruling Democratic mayoral candidate Park Young-sun is a former TV presenter, then elected four times in a row to the National Assembly, and most recently served as Minister of Small, Medium and Venture Business in the government of incumbent President Moon Jae-in. In 2011, she ran for mayor of the capital. But she lost to Park Won Sun, then an independent candidate.
The leading candidate for the opposition People’s Force, Oh Se-hoon, was a 16th National Assembly MP and mayor of Seoul from 2006 to 2011, then resigned in protest against the then Democratic-dominated Seoul City Council decision to introduce free school meals for all students (Oh himself offered to feed only those in need). In the 2016 general election, he ran for parliament in downtown Seoul against current Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, but lost. The battle for the parliamentary mandate in April 2020 ended in failure, albeit with a small gap, Oh was also defeated by Ko Min-jung, the former press secretary of the Blue House.
In Busan, Park Hyung-joon, who previously served as the president’s chief political secretary under former conservative president Lee Myung-bak, competed with Kim Young-choon, who served as Minister of Oceans and Fisheries under Moon.
The campaign promises of each of the candidates would have delighted dream-lovers: Park Young-sun pledged to give 100,000 won to everyone in Seoul to help ease their pain during the pandemic. She also proposed expanding the free food program for kindergartens, promised to actively introduce a digital currency called KS-Coin, and digital technologies in the field of artificial intelligence, 5G networks, blockchain chains and big data.
Some of the promises of the Democrats even ran counter to “party politics.” For example, a pledge to ease restrictions on mortgages to help young people, especially newlyweds, find it easier to buy housing, while restrictions on loans, along with higher property taxes and capital gains, are a key part of the government’s anti-speculation measures and are intended to make it harder to buy houses for speculative profits.
Oh Se-hoon also set out to turn Seoul into a global economic hub, intending to create a “regulatory free zone” in which businesses or investors can receive support packages for financing and taxation. To this end, it is planned to provide step-by-step support to startups and create an “innovative network system” in which local institutions, such as district governments or local universities, and financial institutions will work together to provide individual political support for each startup.
The issue of women’s rights and gender equality was also highlighted by both sides. Park, as a woman candidate, pledged to develop a policy to promote women’s rights and a special position as deputy mayor to be taken by a woman.
The level of mutual “spitting upon” was no less high. Even the conservative media drew attention to the fact that there were more attacks on the opponent in the tactics of each of the candidates than demonstrations of their professional aptitude. JoongAng Ilbo noted that “candidates were bent on attacking rivals with negative campaigns and only competed in populist ways without presenting any real visions for the future.” The Korea Times lost no time: “Voters are already fed up with the candidates’ slanderous remarks against each other. All candidates should engage in fair competition by presenting better ideas and policies”.
Oh Se-hoon campaigned not so much against Park as President Moon, accusing him of mismanagement and incompetence. Like interim conservative leader Kim Chong-in, he stressed that the “coming election is one that judges the Moon Jae-in administration for all of its policies taken during the past four years,” and Park is just an avatar of the president.
The administrative resource fought on the side of the democrats. In February 2021, President Moon visited the planned construction site of the new airport on Gadeokdo Island in Busan. “My heart beats to see the planned site of the new airport,” he said. It was a blatant promotion of the ruling party’s campaign promise. In South Korea, election law obligates government officials to maintain political neutrality.
Meanwhile, the Seoul government, just ahead of the election, announced a plan to provide additional support worth 1 trillion won ($ 882 million) to people affected by the pandemic’s economic shock, starting next month. This hastily orchestrated support program is viewed by many as a blatant attempt to buy votes for a candidate from the ruling party.
For the Conservatives, however, there was the economic situation and a series of scandals affecting the entire society. Today, the Moon administration faces public outrage over widespread corruption, skyrocketing housing prices, rising unemployment and snailing vaccinations amid the protracted COVID-19 pandemic crisis. They are also supported by the accumulating COVID fatigue and the realization of disappointed expectations, which hit Moon’s administration very painfully, demonstrating that in terms of the general level of corruption, his reign does not differ much from that of Park Geun-hye.
The final straw is a scandal involving employees of the state-owned Korea Land & Housing Corp. (LH): Officials at a government housing developer and other government agencies made speculative land purchases using insider information. This scandal included others: trading in the influence of former Justice Minister Cho Guk, the confrontation between the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office, and a number of other stories in which Moon’s administration looks no better than the ousted Park Geun-hye, and in some things even surpasses what the author wrote previously. As a result, the popular slogan to eliminate social abuse (uncovered during the previous administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye) is no longer valid.
In February 2021, 59.2% of those polled said that the meaning of the upcoming by-elections is “to pass judgment on the government and the ruling party.” Another 32.9% answered that the point of elections should be to maintain a stable management of public affairs. Nearly 42% of those surveyed cited the stabilization of the housing market as the main challenge facing the next mayor of Seoul, while 27.4% pointed to “reviving people’s livelihoods” and creating jobs.
Throughout March, Oh Se-hoon was ahead of his opponent in terms of ratings from the ruling forces by almost 20%. The numbers varied between agencies, but overall, Oh Se-hoon’s support rate was over 50%, while Park Young-sun’s was at 30%.
Russian expert Yevgeny Shtefan, who lives in Korea, draws attention to the fact that Korean voting is very often of a protest nature, despite the choice between conditional democrats and conditional conservatives. Korean public opinion votes not so much “for” as “against”, which explains why the Conservatives, who suffered a completely epic defeat in the parliamentary elections a year ago, have practically gotten off their knees by now.
Bae Cheol-ho, lead researcher at Realmeter, also believes that this is an “angry vote”: “Traditionally, those in their 20s and 30s have been supportive of the Liberal Party. However, in this election, strong antipathy and criticism towards the current government and the ruling party is transformed into support for Oh from the conservative party. “ Moon’s real estate policy failed to stabilize prices, making it nearly impossible to acquire housing. Then, younger generations in their 20s and 30s are more gender sensitive than older generations, and sexual harassment allegations leveled against former mayors of Seoul and Busan may have influenced the choice of young voters. The author would add to this the disappointed expectations of justice.
On March 25, the mayoral candidates began their election campaign. At the same time, the media drew attention to the fact that the election brochures of Park Young-sun and Kim Young-choon did not contain their photos with Moon, despite the fact that both of them held ministerial posts in his cabinet and performed their duties well. Moreover, during the campaign, Park Young-sun failed to wear clothes bearing the party’s name and refrained from mentioning President Moon. Apparently to avoid angering the public.
The result of the vote generally coincided with the results of the polls, that the conservatives won everywhere, and with a gap of about 20 percent. Oh Se-hoon received 57.5% of the vote, while Park Young-sun received 39.18% of the vote. In Busan, Park Hyung-joon’s score was even higher, 62.67% versus Kim Young-choon with 34.42% of the vote.
And now the 2021 election shows us Seoul completely painted conservative red. In none of the constituencies did the candidate from the ruling party have an advantage.
Busan went red in a very similar fashion. Although South Gyeongsang itself is usually a conservative province, back in 2017-2018, the country’s second-largest city voted Democrat.
The winners of the mayoral elections for Seoul and Busan took office immediately following the announcement of the final vote count. Their term of office in the new post is until June 30 of the following year. On his first day at work, Oh Se-hoon visited the National Cemetery and met with the city’s legislature¸ promising to change life in the capital and offering to work closely to overcome the COVID-19 crisis and improve people’s lives.
President Moon Jae-in put on a good face in the midst of a bad game. “The defeat of the Democratic Party in early elections is a severe reprimand from the people.” In response, the head of state pledged to continue to carry out his duties “with a great sense of responsibility” and focus on meeting people’s “desperate demands”, including overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, reviving the economy, stabilizing people’s living standards and the real estate market, and eradication of corruption.
In turn, the chairman of the interim committee of the People’s Power Party, Kim Chong-in, described such results as a manifestation of the people’s will: “I think the elections mark a victory of the people’s common sense … this may be the expression of the people’s rage toward the government today”.
The conservative media is elated: “The outcome was a direct result of the arrogance, self-righteousness, hypocrisy and incompetence that have characterized the Moon Jae-in administration and the DPK over the last four years”.
Some experts are already comparing these by-elections to the 2016 parliamentary elections, in which the Democrats gained the upper hand, and Park Geun-hye’s regime was significantly shaken.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.