President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party suffered its worst defeat in five years in the mayoral election in South Korea’s two largest cities, a worrying sign for its progressive bloc just 11 months before the presidential election.
Final results released Thursday showed conservative Oh Se-hoon won a landslide victory in Seoul’s race over ruling party candidate Park Young-sun, a former startup minister. Oh received 57.5% of the vote against 39.2% for Park. In Busan, Park Hyung-jun of the Conservative People’s Power Party beat Kim Young-choon of Moon’s ruling party by 62.7 percent to 34.4 percent, according to data from the National Election Commission.
A key issue in the races was anger over house prices in major metropolitan areas which soared under Moon. Losses in cities that account for about a quarter of South Korea’s population could hamper Moon’s agenda to increase public employment and push for higher tax expenditures. The setbacks could also serve as a warning to his Democratic Party that it must overhaul its policies if it is to retain the presidency when Moon’s single five-year term ends in 2022.
“I feel a great sense of responsibility,” Oh, who served as Seoul mayor between 2006 and 2011, said Thursday in a PPP office.
Some young voters, who have been a solid base of support for Moon, appeared to be fleeing his progressive camp. The exit poll showed that over 70% of male voters under the age of 30 voted for Oh.
The results were a stunning reversal for Moon and his allies. They won a supermajority in parliamentary elections about a year ago, riding a wave of public support for their handling of the coronavirus crisis. Moon’s party scored a streak of victories following the 2016 impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, a conservative leader later convicted of corruption.
Amid anger over housing and stumbles in virus handling, Moon’s support rate hit a new low last week, following allegations employees at a state-owned land company used inside information to make money from housing estates in Seoul. The scandal was the latest in a series of questionable land deals that have hampered the Moon presidency.
Oh, backed by the PPP, has hammered Moon’s government to tighten regulations on redevelopment and limit the number of building permits over the years, saying the attempt to curb private builders’ gains has come down. turned against him.
Oh resigned as mayor of Seoul in 2011 after losing a fight to curb free student lunches in the capital to cut public spending, fueling harsh criticism. A return to power could indicate that public sentiment has deteriorated about Moon’s economic policies that prioritize wealth redistribution and tax assistance.
Moon pledged to make housing more affordable when he was elected in 2017, but apartment prices in Seoul have doubled in the past five years, while wages have failed to keep pace, leaving housing in the capital out of reach for many people and some in the hands of a few speculative people.
Moon has taken dozens of measures to curb gains, only to see some backfiring and prices in Seoul rise further during his tenure. Meanwhile, households owed more money than ever before as they rushed to buy a home before prices rose even more. Their debt now stands at around 176% of disposable income.
The by-elections were necessary after the mayors of Seoul and Busan, both of Moon’s Democratic Party, faced allegations of sexual harassment, an embarrassment for Moon who ran for feminist president.
Then-Seoul mayor Park Won-Soon died in apparent suicide last year amid the allegations.
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