South Korea ruling party dealt crushing defeats in mayoral polls

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Conservative opposition People Power Party wins landslide victories in votes for the mayors of the country’s two biggest cities of Seoul and Busan.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party has suffered devastating defeats in elections for the mayors of the country’s two biggest cities, results showed on Thursday, amid political scandals and policy blunders.

The election on Wednesday was widely seen a key barometer for potential political shifts for Moon’s progressive party with less than one year left before a March 9 presidential election.

The mayoral posts, both held by Democratic Party members, became vacant last year as a result of sexual harassment allegations, with Seoul mayor Park Won-soon killing himself while the leader of the southern port of Busan resigned.

Between them, the two municipalities account for about a quarter of the national population.

In Seoul, Oh Se-hoon of the conservative People Power Party defeated his Democratic opponent by 57.5 percent to 39.2 percent, according to the National Election Commission, winning all the city’s 25 districts.

“I can’t hold back the heavy sense of responsibility that’s really weighing down on my mind,” said Oh.

Park Young-sun (centre) candidate for mayor of the ruling Democratic Party, was defeated by her conservative opponent in the by-election [Photo by Jung Yeon-je /AFP]

In Busan, People Party candidate Park Hyung-joon received 62.7 percent of the votes, beating Democrat Kim Young-choon who earned 34.4 percent.

Voter turnout was 58.2 percent in Seoul and 52.7 percent in Busan from some 12.16 million eligible to cast ballots, exceeding 50 percent in a snap election for local offices for the first time, according to the commission.

The two new mayors will serve out the remaining 14 months of their predecessors’ four-year terms.

‘Public reprimand’

Moon and his Democratic Party have been struggling with plummeting ratings in recent months amid public outrage over soaring housing prices, deepening inequality and corruption and sex abuse scandals involving senior officials.

In a statement, the ruling party said it “humbly accepts the public sentiment displayed in the election results”, adding: “We have caused the public huge disappointment due to our shortcomings.”

In a separate statement, Moon said that he takes it as a “reprimand” from the public.

According to the presidential palace spokesman Kang Min-seok, the president pledged to carry out his duties with a “humble demeanour and heavy sense of responsibility”.

Moon was also quoted as saying that he will concentrate his efforts on meeting the people’s “desperate demands,” including overcoming the COVID-19 crisis,  revitalising the economy and rooting out corruption.

Moon – who is limited to a single term by South Korea’s constitution – saw his approval ratings plunge to a record-low of 32 percent last week, with 58 percent disapproving of the job he is doing, according to a survey by Gallup Korea.

The latest vote result is in stark contrast to the parliamentary elections one year ago, when the Democratic Party enjoyed a sweeping victory that gave it a super-majority at the National Assembly.

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