On Mar. 9 South Koreans are electing their new president, and the outcome is far from assured: most surveys show Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative opposition People Power Party leading Lee Jae-myung of the ruling center-left Minjoo Party by two to five percentage points, but at least one poll has Lee with a slim edge over Yoon. The shock announcement Thursday that a third candidate, centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, was dropping out to endorse Yoon led some to declare a certain victory for the latter but Ahn's last-minute declaration to quit, going against his earlier promise to run till the end, may not guarantee that all his supporters will rally behind Yoon.
That the race remains so tight has prompted some head-scratching. You might be thinking, hasn't South Korea done a great job handling the Covid pandemic, and shouldn't that work in the ruling party's favor? Indicators also suggest that the economy is in good shape, with both the GDP and exports growing.
Indeed, incumbent president Moon Jae-in, from Lee's own party, is enjoying an approval rating of 45 percent according to polling firm Gallup Korea. That's an unusually high figure for an outgoing South Korean leader (for comparison, Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye was seeing single-digit support before she was ousted from power in March 2017 by the constitutional court over corruption and abuse of power).
But the flip side is that the same Gallup Korea poll, released on Wednesday, shows the two major parties are neck and neck in popular support, each registering 38 percent. And the share of respondents expressing disapproval of Moon's performance was larger than those who approved.
It's a reflection of the country's very divided landscape. Since long before Moon took power, political discourse has been shaped by a tendency to view policies in black-and-white terms down ideological lines. Centrism is out of favor, and it's hard to find support from one side without alienating the other.
Predictably, many of Moon's signature initiatives haven't been universally liked. Lee, whose key promise is implementing a universal basic income to ease economic inequality, is likely to continue Moon's course in many ways and, on top of it, fending off accusations of corruption.
Even though the alternative, Yoon, doesn't exactly scream competence, with some dubbing him a "vegetable president" in waiting for his idiosyncrasies, it's clear that enough people see him as preferable to continuing Minjoo rule.
Moon and the Minjoo's Mixed Legacies
It's not only in South Korea that incumbents fall out of favor with the electorate over a long run. And among detractors of the current government anger runs deep, not least over housing prices that have soared. Although the market lately shows some signs of correction, they aren't enough to offset the steep rise under Moon's watch.
In a typical case, the value of my parents' modest 86-square-meter (926-square-feet) apartment in southeastern Seoul (Songpa District to be precise) has doubled since he took power. Even recently "residential real estate prices in [South Korea] jumped by 23.9 percent during the July-to-September period compared to the same period a year earlier", reported newspaper The JoongAng in December.
Moon rolled out more than 20 different measures to cool the market including higher taxes and restrictions on borrowing, but none of them appear to have had much effect.
Housing is but one factor for the Minjoo's struggle; Moon's decision to start raising the minimum wage quite substantially—41.6 percent over the course of his presidency to 9,160 won (7.50 USD) per hour—was in keeping with his campaign pledge, but the sudden pace of increase (16 and 11 percent in 2018 and 2019 respectively) was felt to be a hit on small businesses. Some say the hike has had the opposite effect of what he intended—which was raising living standards while allowing South Koreans to work less—and actually reduced employment in the service sector and made the average household income drop.
In recent months high inflation has pinched household budgets, making it harder for ordinary people to believe that the economy is doing so well.
Naturally Moons' pursuit of detente with North Korea didn't thrill the conservatives, to put it mildly. And his three meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 led to no measurable improvement in inter-Korean relations in the end.
But Pyongyang isn't on the minds of most voters going into this election.
Besides economy, Moon and the Minjoo leave behind mixed legacies in two key areas: justice and gender equality.
Moon's top campaign promise in 2017 was eliminating South Korea's entrenched corruption, but his own administration was beset with myriad ethical lapses—and criminal conduct in some cases—on the part of high-ranking officials, much as it had been the case with the political elite before.
In his defense, Moon did have some good ideas about promoting social justice and equality, for example by reducing the country's large irregular labor force on fixed-term contracts with no benefits—38.4 percent of the total workforce last year. The very month he was elected, in May 2017, he visited the Incheon International Airport, managed by a state-owned enterprise, and promised regular, full-time employment for all.
What seemed like a wonderful idea caused a backlash, prompting many existing regular employees at the airport and young jobseekers to say this was unfair because the irregular employees are "unqualified" for decent, stable jobs. Some 350,000 people signed a petition to the presidential office asking Moon to reconsider, in a sign that not all South Koreans saw justice and equality in the same way.
And in pledging to promote gender equality and cracking down on gender-based crimes, committed mostly by men, the administration won a following among younger women and alienated younger men who believe they are facing reverse discrimination (not that they really are).
Young Voters Seen As Kingmakers
Moon cannot be blamed for all of the division, but his policies have had the effect of costing his party the young male votes. In the Seoul mayoral election last year 72.5 percent of men in their twenties cast their ballots for the conservative candidate Oh Se-hoon who won.
That's why the gender issue, resonant particularly among younger South Koreans, has been so prominent in the campaign phase.
To court those same angry souls this time, the opposition candidate Yoon removed a feminist politician from his campaign. On Facebook he also called for abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which young masculinists openly despise (they see it, whose official Korean name is actually the Ministry of Women and Family—Yeoseong Gajokbu 여성가족부—as being biased against men).
And Lee from the Minjoo initially shied away from being associated with feminist causes, unlike Moon who once publicly announced that he would be a "feminist president". Belatedly Lee came around to say "I am weak not just before men in their twenties, but also before women in their twenties" in a recognition that he might be losing the young female votes with his lack of a stance.
In such a close race voters under the age of 40 are being seen as a deciding force. "Catch Generation MZ...Lee and Yoon Laugh and Cry Over Under-40 Demographic", "Biggest Electoral Battleground Is Generation MZ" and "How to Capture Generation-MZ Votes" are some of the news headlines over the past months indicating the importance of this demographic (if you don't know the term "Generation MZ", it stands for Millennials and Generation Z together).
It isn't because this group is necessarily special; Generation MZ has by far the largest share of voters who don't support any party: 31 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29, and 25 percent of those in their thirties.
And their ballots will certainly count a lot toward choosing South Korea's next president.