The opposition People Power Party (PPP) won landslide victories in mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan, as well as other local races, on Wednesday, 7 April. These results mark the first major victories by conservative forces after a wilderness period following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye and the election of Moon Jae-in in 2017. Only one year after suffering a devastating loss to the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) in National Assembly elections, the conservative opposition appears increasingly competitive ahead of the 9 March 2022 presidential election. At the same time, Moon’s power will wane as he faces public anger over the land speculation scandal at the Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH), stalled diplomacy with North Korea, and broad frustration with his administration’s inability to deliver economic revitalization.
Wednesday’s by-elections were first and foremost a repudiation of Moon’s handling of the economy and housing prices. The LH scandal is an especially devastating blow to Moon; the scandal reveals that not only was the government unable to manage rising housing prices but also public officials were profiting from the administration’s schemes to increase housing supply. The Seoul defeat suggests that dissatisfaction with the DPK is running high even in one of its major strongholds, with the PPP’s Oh Se-hoon, a former mayor, receiving nearly 60% of the vote on the back of turnout that exceeded a by-election record of 58%.
Accordingly, while the by-election signals a return to relevance for the conservative opposition – suggesting that plans by PPP interim leader Kim Chong-in, a former ally of Moon’s, to moderate the conservative bloc’s image have paid off – it is not a guarantee that the PPP has the upper hand heading into the presidential campaign. Instead, it could lead the DPK to distance itself from the president. This could favor the candidacy of Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi province, who has positioned himself as a left-wing populist and became the most popular of the potential DPK contenders with a call for a universal basic income. At the same time, the DPK’s defeat could perpetuate the slide of DPK leader and former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, who will struggle to distance himself from an administration in which he served for nearly three years. But Lee Jae-myung may struggle to connect with Moon’s supporters, suggesting that the race for the DPK nomination is still open.
Nevertheless, the PPP has an opportunity to win the presidency next year, not least because polls before the by-elections and exit polls suggest that younger voters may be growing increasingly disenchanted with the DPK. But it is less clear whether the PPP has a candidate who will be able to take advantage of the DPK’s struggles. PPP politicians are virtually absent from presidential polls. Former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-youl, who led the investigation that felled former president Park and who resigned last month after feuding with Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae over his powers to investigate corruption, continues to lead all contenders in polls, but is independent from the PPP. Without a strong candidate of its own, the PPP could, in cooperation with political maverick Ahn Cheol-soo and his People’s Party, end up throwing its weight behind an outsider like Yoon.