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South Korean President Faces Political Crisis as Approval Rating Tumbles

Daniel Kim Views  

Who among the past Korean presidents had the lowest approval rating towards the end of their term?

Looking at the average job performance ratings for the fourth quarter of the fifth year (according to Gallup Korea), we see: the 14th president Kim Young Sam at 6%, the 15th president Kim Dae Jung at 24%, the 16th President Roh Moo Hyun at 27%, the 17th president Lee Myung Bak at 24%, and the 19th president Moon Jae In at 42%. President Park Geun Hye’s approval rating was 24% in October 2016, but then the scandal involving governmental influence broke out. As candlelight rallies spread nationwide, her approval rating plummeted to 5% in November and December, leading to her impeachment on March 10, 2017.

Currently, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s approval rating stands at 27% (National Indicator Survey, April 29-May 1). This is a drop of about ten percentage points compared to before the election, which is at the same level as the end of the Roh administration.

Due to the nature of the single five-year presidential term, a president’s power will inevitably leak towards the end of their term. The problem is that the Yoon Suk Yeol administration still has three years left in its term. Analyses are suggesting that an early lame-duck phase has become a reality, just as predicted before the general elections. The administration has indeed been barely surviving with approval ratings in the 20-30% range due to its incompetence and lack of communication in personnel, diplomacy, and dealing with the media. Facing an environment of unfavorable public opinion and a parliament dominated by the opposition, how will President Yoon navigate these challenges?

After the 22nd general election, Democratic Party leader Lee Jae Myung proposed a summit, marking the ninth request since the inauguration of Yoon’s government. It took nine days after the election loss and a total of 602 days of refusal for the summit to finally take place. The National Assembly passed the special law for investigating the Itaewon disaster on May 2, which the presidential office welcomed as a success of the summit.

Has the politics of collaboration begun? The Chae Sang Byung Special Prosecutor Law was passed by the Democratic Party despite opposition from the ruling party, just one hour after the Itaewon Special Act was passed through the plenary session. The presidential office is signaling a veto. If this happens, it would be the tenth request for reconsideration since the inauguration. The president may even have to worry about defections within the party.

President Yoon Suk Yeol is in a position of isolation as Lee Jae Myung and the Democratic Party, united in their desire for a change of government, have no intention or reason to cooperate with the government or the ruling party. With a strong parliamentary system under Park Chan Dae, the party’s floor leader, the Democratic Party led by Lee Jae Myung is expected to strengthen its political leadership through a powerful drive centered on the National Assembly.

The competition for clarity in the 23rd National Assembly, which includes the Justice Party, is expected to intensify. The party’s leader, Cho Kuk, has stated that the goal is to “first turn the Yoon administration into a lame duck, and secondly into a dead duck.” A dead duck refers to a state of power vacuum.

Even the People Power Party finds it inevitable to differentiate itself from the current government. Centrifugal forces will strengthen around politicians who decide to part ways with the president and aim for the next presidency. If the prosecution, sensitive to the fate of power, does not hesitate to turn against the presidential couple, the president may fall into a vegetative state for the remainder of his term.

In such a precarious situation, the Yoon Suk Yeol government finds itself in the awkward position of having to manage a minority-majority political situation for the entire five years. This is said to be a first in our political history.

The president seems to want to show a change in attitude after receiving the report card from the general election, belatedly holding a meeting with the Prime Minister and preparing for a press conference on his second anniversary in office. However, many citizens, including myself, already know that the Yoon Suk Yeol government cannot overcome this crisis. So, is the future of the Democratic Party, and the opposition, full of hope for governance?

Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Lee Myung Bak, both of whom left office with a 24% approval rating, succeeded in regaining power. This was because Roh Moo Hyun, who put forward the slogans of clearing up the three Kims era and political reform, and Park Geun Hye, who claimed to be an opposition within the ruling party and dug into the middle ground, were successful in turning public sentiment disappointed with the current government. The choice of differentiation rather than succession was the key to success.

President Moon Jae In maintained a solid approval rating in the 40% range until the end, even being called ‘the only president without a lame duck’, but handed the reins of government back to the conservative camp after five years in office. We must remember that a high approval rating for the president does not necessarily lead to an extension of the government, nor does a low rating necessarily lead to a change.

“Choose the Lesser Of Two Evils” was a catchphrase in the second U.S. presidential election between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. The 2022 presidential election in Korea was also dubbed the ‘worst unfavorable election ever’. It didn’t take a few months for the hearts of those who voted for candidate Yoon Suk Yeol because they disliked the other candidate more to cool down. The vitality of power gained by relying on antipathy may be just that.

Now, Lee Jae Myung’s opponent is not just the president. Many people in both the ruling and opposition parties are already looking beyond the Yoon Suk Yeol government. With the early lame-duck situation, the pace of the next candidates will also speed up. Regardless of the camp, anyone recognized as a likable political leader with personal competitiveness could emerge as a strong competitor at any time.

In the fourth week of April after the Democratic Party’s landslide victory in the 2000 general elections, the party support rate was 43% for the Democratic Party and 19% for the Future Unification Party. After the People’s Power party’s big win in the 2022 local elections, the party support rate in the fourth week of June was 28% for the Democratic Party and 42% for the People’s Power party (according to Gallup Korea). It is a common phenomenon that the support rate for the winning party continues to be dominant for a while after the election.

However, the party support rate at the current point, less than a month after the general elections, is 29% for the Democratic Party and 31% for the People’s Power Party (National Indicator Survey, April 29-May 1). The Democratic Party should interpret this signal well.

“Those more progressive than the Democratic Party question whether it embodies a progressive agenda, and the rational moderates doubt whether the Democratic Party is a capable alternative political force.”

This was the diagnosis of Hong Sung Soo, a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University (Law), who was part of the Refresh Committee formed by the Democratic Party after its defeat in the 2022 local elections.

In this general election, the Democratic Party succeeded in winning over those who were angry and disappointed with the Yoon Suk Yeol government by raising the banner of judgment on the government, instead of answering this question. The people’s evaluation of the president is over. Now it’s time for the Democratic Party to solve the long-standing homework. I hope they prepare well so that the citizens can make a joyful choice of a vision that gives hope and competent politics in the 2027 presidential election.

ⓒYonhap News
Daniel Kim
content@viewusglobal.com

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