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Lee Jun-seok (R), leader of the ruling People Power Party, attaches a sticker saying ‘being elected’ to the photo of incumbent Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon during local elections on Wednesday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s new president gets big win with local election results favouring his People Power Party

  • Of the 17 mayoral and governor races, the ruling PPP won 12, including the Seoul mayoral seat, as well as five of seven seats in parliamentary by-elections
  • Win sees the People Power Party gain leverage in managing state affairs, but the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea still controls the National Assembly
South Korea

The victory of the ruling People Power Party (PPP) in the local elections has given President Yoon Suk-yeol more leverage in his management of state affairs, although the election results haven’t changed much about the reality that the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) still controls the National Assembly.

Of the 17 mayoral and governor races, the ruling party won 12, including the Seoul mayoral seat. In addition, the PPP took five out of seven seats that were up for grabs in parliamentary by-elections.

Given that the quadrennial event was held less than a month after Yoon took office on May 10, it was widely regarded as an extended round of the election rather than a referendum on the Yoon administration. Yoon edged out the DPK’s Lee Jae-myung by 0.7 percentage point in the presidential election on March 9.

“While the Yoon administration is being frustrated by the DPK’s majority in the Assembly, what Yoon badly needs is favourable public opinion. In that respect, the wins in the local elections, held three months after the presidential election, means the ‘honeymoon phase’ with the public has been extended, giving a huge boost to the government,” said Hong Hyeong-sik, a political analyst and director of Hangil Research.


Who is South Korea’s newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol and what are his plans?

Who is South Korea’s newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol and what are his plans?

“For Yoon to earn such support right after his May 10 inauguration, which is a very important moment of his five-year tenure, will greatly help him establish key national policies and push for them.”

On Tuesday, the eve of the local elections, PPP floor leader Rep. Kweon Seong-dong wooed voters, saying that if the presidential election was the first half of the change in government, the local elections are the second half of the shift.

“We should remember that we won the presidential election just by 0.7 percentage point. We cannot be complacent,” he added.

In the lead-up to the local elections, many said Yoon’s May 21 summit with US President Joe Biden would help the ruling party appeal to voters, as the summit has gained recognition for raising the security alliance to a global comprehensive strategic alliance ― an agenda that conservative voters are enthusiastic about.

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However, Hong said the PPP win was already sealed even ahead of the Yoon-Biden summit, citing a series of missteps by the DPK, including an internal feud between its co-interim leaders.

“Other than the DPK’s blunders, the key to the election victory is that President Yoon successfully pushed ahead with his nomination of the justice minister and the prime minister despite the opposition party’s strong objection,” Hong said.

In response to the nominations, the DPK urged Yoon to withdraw his nomination of Han Dong-hoon, one of Yoon’s closest confidants, citing his resistance to prosecutorial reform.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (R) and US President Joe Biden hold a press conference in Seoul on May 21. Photo: AFP

As for the prime minister nominee, Han Duck-soo, the DPK declared him initially as “unqualified” due to his post-retirement career at a law firm and other suspected irregularities, along with its anger over Yoon’s lack of willingness to cooperate with the opposition, as evidenced by the appointment of the justice minister. However, DPK members endorsed the prime minister nominee in the end amid concerns that rejecting the nomination could backfire and hurt their chances in the local elections.

“Many voted for Yoon in the presidential election, hoping for the rule of law from him, and they saw Han Dong-hoon as the perfect fit to do so,” Hong said.

Yoon resigned from the top prosecutor post in March 2021 due to his feud with the former Moon Jae-in administration over prosecutorial reform and a series of politically sensitive investigations targeting corruption among key ruling bloc figures. The justice minister is a strong critic of the recently enacted laws on prosecution reform, which have been railroaded by the DPK.

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Although the ruling party won the mayoral races for Seoul and Busan, the nation’s two biggest cities, a loss in the election for the Gyeonggi Province governorship would be a bitter pill to swallow.

“It is reasonable that the PPP won races in the regions that voted for Yoon, but the president was behind by 5.3 percentage points in Gyeonggi Province. To shake off the tag that he won by a mere 0.7 percentage points, the party should have claimed the gubernatorial seat,” Hong said.

“If the PPP had won the election, it would have tipped the balance of public sentiment in Yoon’s favour.”