[News analysis] Why are people revoking support for the Democratic Party?

Posted on : 2020-07-21 17:17 KST Modified on : 2020-07-21 17:17 KST
S. Korea’s ruling party has failed to read public sentiment and take swift action regarding scandals
Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan presides over a budget and policy meeting concerning Daegu, North Gyeongsang Province, and Jeju at the National Assembly on July 20. (Yonhap News)
Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan presides over a budget and policy meeting concerning Daegu, North Gyeongsang Province, and Jeju at the National Assembly on July 20. (Yonhap News)

Every time South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s job approval rating has risen or fallen, the Blue House and the ruling Democratic Party have said they “don’t base politics on the polls” and that they “won’t overreact to fluctuations in approval ratings.” They responded the same way when Moon’s approval was soaring after South Korea hosted the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and when it was plummeting amid the scandal surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

But the recent slide in support ratings has evidently created some anxiety. Party members are worried that this “secular slump” — which has appeared not even a hundred days after the Democratic Party pulled off an overwhelming victory in the general elections in Moon’s fourth year in office — could make Moon a lame duck. The ruling party is especially concerned because of the defection of people in their 30s, a key segment of the administration’s constituency.

Why is the public turning its back on Moon?

According to pollsters at Gallup Korea, Moon’s job approval rating has been falling for seven consecutive weeks. His rating hit 46% in the third week of July, which was down 25 points from this year’s peak, in the first week in May. A Real Meter poll released on July 20 showed disapproval of Moon (51.0%) overshadowing approval in a phenomenon that analysts call a “dead cross.” That’s the lowest point since the second week of October last year, when the Cho Kuk scandal was in full swing. The Democratic Party’s ratings have also reached its lowest level since last October.

The recent downturn in support is due to a steady stream of missteps by the ruling party since its triumph in the general election in April, including allegations of accounting fraud by the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and a controversy about upgrading the job status of precarious workers at Incheon International Airport. The recent loss of public support was accelerated by the government’s troubled real estate policy; allegations of sexual harassment against late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who committed suicide; and the ruling party’s inappropriate response to those developments.

Perhaps the worst blunder was the announcement by Blue House Chief of Staff Noh Young-min — who owned two apartments, one in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, and the other in the Banpo neighborhood of Seoul — that he would be selling the apartment in Cheongju, rather than the one in Seoul.

Pundits argue that public sentiment is extremely susceptible to real estate issues, since people’s homes are the foundation of their livelihood.

“The real estate issue is fatal for the ruling party, since it dashes dreams for the future, the dreams that are symbolized by real estate,” said Ahn Byeong-jin, a professor at the Global Academy for Future Civilizations at Kyunghee University.

Public opinion, already simmering because of the government’s ineffectual real estate policy, was brought to full boil by the death of Park Won-soon. “It was shocking enough for Park to end his own life after allegations of sexual harassment were raised against him, but the party’s response to that incident caused even our supporters to turn their backs,” said a source in the Democratic Party.

“Party leader Lee Hae-chan’s vulgar response [to a reporter asking for comment about Park’s death] was a symbolic moment. It showed that the ruling party has lost touch with what the public is feeling and how the younger generation feels about the allegations of sexual harassment against Park,” said Yu Chang-seon, a political commentator.

Each time the party attempted to settle on a position on the Park incident, sharp disagreements cropped up between lawmakers and their aides and younger party members. “We tried to give advice as soon as the incident occurred, but it just wasn’t getting through. The majority of lawmakers weren’t able to perceive the seriousness of the incident,” said the aide to one lawmaker.

Lee Won-uk, a Democratic Party lawmaker who announced on Monday that he’s running for a spot on the party’s supreme council, identified the party’s hypocritical response as the main reason for its sagging support. “The party blamed young people’s anger over the conversion of precariouis workers at Incheon Airport on ‘fake news’ and adopted an ambiguous stance on the allegations of sexual harassment filed against Park Won-soon. People who are disappointed in the Democratic Party are disappointed that it has given up fairness — they’re disappointed in its hypocritical attitude,” Lee said.

The ruling party seeks a way out

Following a string of damaging scandals affecting ruling party figures including Cho Kuk, Yoon Mee-hyang, and Park Won-soon, the ruling party is coming around to the position that its only option is to respond to scandals swiftly and firmly, without making allowances for personal connections and party loyalty. Under this view, the party should appease public anger by issuing a stern statement about Park’s alleged sexual discrimination and reassure its supporters by focusing on moving ahead with its reform agenda.

“Even during the Cho Kuk scandal, the party managed to hold out because the scandal was tied up with the policy issue of prosecutorial reform. This crisis is more serious because it springs from a sex crime by a powerful figure, an issue that doesn’t admit political debate. The party shouldn’t waste any time in taking tougher measures,” said a source in the ruling party.

That position was also backed by a lawmaker who belongs to the party leadership. “The measures announced by the party appear to place the responsibility for investigating the incident in the hands of the Seoul government, which is accused of covering up that very incident. Firmer action is necessary to allay the people’s wrath. The miscommunication between the party, government officials, and the Blue House on the real estate issue needs to be quickly cleared up, and our supporters need to be brought back into the fold through reform legislation,” the lawmaker said.

Party needs to stop taking support of certain groups for granted

Experts also advised the party to part ways with the political habit of relying on a key group of supporters and being deferential to their feelings.

“[Former president] Park Geun-hye’s administration shows that even a robust political base can be eroded by persistent negative factors. Ahn Hee-jung, Oh Keo-don, and Park Won-soon — a governor and two mayors with the Democratic Party — were all brought down in the same kind of scandal, yet the administration hasn’t issued an apology. There’s a serious problem with how these issues are being dealt with,” said Park Seong-min, CEO of the Min political consulting group.

“The ruling party needs to sound the alarm bells and come up with new leaders that are plugged into public sentiment. The party needs to show contrition for the real estate issue by at least shuffling out the responsible minister,” said Yu Chang-seon.

By Kim Won-chul and Seo Young-ji, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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