[East Asia Forum] Tough tests for South Korea’s next president

By: Hyung-A Kim, Australian National University

With less than a hundred days to South Korea’s presidential election on 9 March 2022, the contest appears to be turning into a quasi-life-or-death round of Netflix’s Squid Game amid scandals between the frontrunners: the ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) Lee Jae-myung, former governor of Gyunggi province, and the main opposition People Power Party’s (PPP) Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor-general. Both are campaigning on fairness and justice, prompting political cynicism especially among young people.

A recent Gallup survey (over 2–4 November 2021) suggests that 57 per cent of respondents reckoned that ‘it is better to elect an opposition candidate to replace the government’. At the same time 33 per cent thought that ‘it’s better for the ruling party candidate to be elected to maintain the current administration’, a 24 per cent gap — the largest in Gallup surveys since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration. But in the very same survey, in answer to a free question about the preferred political leader, the ruling DP candidate Lee was ahead with 26 per cent, above the conservative PPP candidate Yoon with 24 per cent.

This contradiction dramatically resolved itself in the latest Gallup survey (over 16–18 November). In this survey, 42 per cent preferred Yoon over Lee (with 31 per cent) and two other presidential candidates from minor opposition parties, Ahn Cheol-soo (7 per cent) and Shim Sang-jung (5 per cent). The two surveys reflect the South Korean voters’ disillusionment with Moon’s administration and their distrust about the scandals surrounding both Lee and Yoon.

Three key issues are likely to have a major influence on how the election turns out.

The biggest is voter demand for fairness in South Korean politics and society. President Moon’s widely criticised ‘one-way’ national management, combined with his double standard ‘rules for thee, not me’ are exemplified by his tight control over real estate investment for South Korean citizens while members of his own government have engaged in wild land speculation. The South Korean young voters at the April 2021 mayoral by-elections, which led to sweeping victories by the opposition PPP, laid down a clear warning for the 2022 presidential race.

The Cho Kuk scandal, which forced the then justice minister to resign after his wife was found to have rigged the university admission process in favour of their daughter, in particular, incensed young voters who struggle for upward mobility in South Korea’s rapidly ageing and competitive society. They demand fairness in the processes that determine advancement.

There are vast generational differences, not only in political preference and narrative, but in what constitutes fairness within South Korean society. Voters in their 40s and 50s, beneficiaries of South Korea’s rapid industrialisation focus on fair outcomes. Fierce generational clashes are expected. therefore, in the election over the ability to restore fairness and justice in face of South Korean democratic decay. South Korea’s two living ex-presidents are both in jail.

The second major question is about the competence of both Lee and Yoon to assume the presidency. Both are trying to project a strong image of fairness, but neither has parliamentary experience. Lee pledges to introduce a universal basic income and Yoon promises to restore justice and the rule of law through regime change. Neither Lee nor Yoon have track records that are unblemished.

Lee narrowly secured a party primary victory over former prime minister Lee Nak-yon in October amid a snowballing land development scandal in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province, while he served as Seongnam mayor. Lee’s defiant response to his alleged involvement in this scandal, however, led many supporters of the ruling DP to turn their backs on both the DP and Lee and reduced his stock of voter ‘goodwill’. Since his nomination, the DP’s approval rating in South Korea’s southwest Honam region — a historic leftist stronghold — has plunged by 13.9 percentage points from 63.3 per cent a week earlier to 49.4 per cent. Lee’s ‘approval’ rating is stuck at 32 per cent, while his ‘disapproval’ rating rose to 63 per cent from 60 per cent a month earlier, according to Gallup.

Yoon is no less entangled in scandal. Allegations of abuse of power have emerged about his time as the country’s top public prosecutor. As a newcomer to politics, he doesn’t appear to appeal to young voters either, with many of the under 30s preferring Yoon’s opponent, a veteran politician, in the presidential primaries.

The third and arguably most sensitive issue is COVID-19 management. Despite the Moon administration’s early success at containing the virus, daily cases have recently skyrocketed, with 2618 deaths and 337,679 new cases recorded as of October. In November, with almost 79 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, the Moon administration rolled out a series of measures under its Living with COVID-19 plan to nudge the country back to normalcy. In less than three weeks, however, the country’s number of daily COVID-19 cases reached almost 4000 while the number of severely ill patients reached an all-time high of 549 on 23 November. With a dozen new Omicron cases, the administration has tightened anti-virus controls, including on social distancing.

Unless Moon’s living-with-COVID-19 plan succeeds, the public backlash against the government and the ruling Democratic Party will be costly given the host of other problems that South Koreans have faced over the past five years.

Which factors ultimately dominate the outcome in the election is still difficult to predict but, if the recent past is any indication, South Korea’s middle class, especially young swinging voters in their 20s and 30s, will be decisive in the final judgment. The outcome is likely to lean towards the candidate who persuades voters that he captures the voters’ demand for fairness and justice.

Hyung-A Kim is Associate Professor of Korean Politics and History at the School of Culture, History and Language, The Australian National University.

A version of this article appear in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘The Korean Way’, Vol 13, No 4.

Link to the original article: https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2021/12/05/tough-tests-for-south-koreas-next-president/