General election rout could make Korea’s Yoon a lame-duck president

Posted on : 2024-04-11 17:18 KST Modified on : 2024-04-11 17:18 KST
Yoon will be the first president since the establishment of Korea’s constitutional government to spend all five years of its term facing an opposition-dominated National Assembly
President Yoon Suk-yeol enters a meeting on urban housing supply held at the presidential office complex in Seoul on April 8, 2024. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol enters a meeting on urban housing supply held at the presidential office complex in Seoul on April 8, 2024. (Yonhap)

The sound defeat of the People Power Party in Wednesday’s general elections is anticipated to deal a significant blow to President Yoon Suk-yeol’s governance. With vote tallies bearing out the view of this election as a referendum on Yoon’s administration — often criticized for bull-headed and dogmatic governance — South Korea’s president now faces the challenge of pulling off major overhauls of his approach to running the country and the keystone policies he’s pursued. 

Although Yoon will likely try to turn the tide by changing the faces of key positions within his administration, it will still be difficult to avoid a becoming a lame-duck president.

Yoon did not schedule any official activities on Thursday. He reportedly stayed in the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District to watch the election results in real time. 

Because Yoon began his presidency with a Democratic-majority parliament, this election cycle was do-or-die if he wanted a friendly National Assembly for the remainder of his term in office. The president paid no heed to concerns that he was improperly interfering in the election and set off across the country from Jan. 4 to March 26 to carry out a total of 24 roundtables on livelihood issues in battleground districts and announce policy initiatives for regional development. 

Yet it was Yoon himself who fanned the flames that were burning down his political clout. The president never apologized or displayed any public remorse for first lady Kim Keon-hee’s acceptance of a luxury bag from a pastor. Then, on March 4, he appointed former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup as the new ambassador to Australia, all while Lee was under investigation for meddling in the probe into the death of a Marine corporal. When Yoon came under fire for helping a suspect in a corruption investigation leave the country, Lee resigned as ambassador just 25 days after his appointment. 

Yet public opinion had already soured by then. To top it all off, Yoon made a gaffe during a visit to a local grocery store in Seoul when he remarked on the “reasonable” prices of green onions, a staple produce that has soared in cost due to inflation, exhibiting his ignorance of the economic realities of the average citizen. The incident further enraged the voting public.

With the ruling party’s defeat in this general election, Yoon now faces an even greater opposition majority in the National Assembly than he did at the beginning of his presidency two years ago, which will necessitate political concessions. 

During an interview with the Chosun Ilbo in January of last year, Yoon remarked that “the ruling party must secure a parliamentary majority in the general election for me to fulfill my campaign promises. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll just be a vegetable president.”

Yoon ran on a pledge to carry out reforms in three major areas — labor policies, pensions and education — but this now appears unlikely to come to fruition. Ahead of the general election, he promised to lower taxes, but the outcome of the election will likely doom this as well. 

The opposition is expected to continue to focus on issues like the first lady’s alleged impropriety and Lee’s interference in an official Marine Corps investigation — and Yoon will find it increasingly difficult to sweep them under the rug. Throughout his presidency, Yoon has not only refused to acknowledge his main political rival, Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, but he has not even sat down with Lee for any type of compromise whatsoever. After Wednesday’s election, however, Yoon will have no choice but to extend an olive branch.

Yoon’s control over his own party is also under threat. Throughout the campaign cycle leading up to the election, People Power Party candidates continually referred to the “Yongsan risk” — the political baggage of being linked to the president — that they faced, highlighting already-forming cracks within the ruling party. If the faction that opposes Yoon within the party starts voicing their demands for internal reform, Yoon’s influence over the PPP will surely wither.

Yoon is likely to reshuffle his inner circle and Cabinet in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. He will also need to present a tenable solution to the ongoing conflict between his administration and the medical community, which has persisted for much longer than predicted.

“We will review our policies and deliberate over ways for the administration to take a step closer to the people,” said a presidential office insider. 

By Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter

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