People Power Party’s local election wins likely to embolden Yoon’s policy approach

Posted on : 2022-06-02 17:19 KST Modified on : 2022-06-02 17:19 KST
Sweeping victories for the ruling party are likely to lend sorely needed momentum to Yoon’s administration at its outset
People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok (center) cheers with party members including Kweon Seong-dong (left) and Kim Gi-hyeon (right) while watching exit polls come in on June 1. (National Assembly pool photo)
People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok (center) cheers with party members including Kweon Seong-dong (left) and Kim Gi-hyeon (right) while watching exit polls come in on June 1. (National Assembly pool photo)

The People Power Party’s landslide victory in Wednesday’s local elections handed South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol some new momentum early on in his term.

Having gotten off to a somewhat precarious start with a razor-thin election victory and an opposition Democratic Party majority in the National Assembly, Yoon’s administration appears poised to adopt a more aggressive approach now that it has confirmed the public’s support for “stability” in governance.

Yoon watched the coverage of vote tallies at his home in Seoul’s Seocho District after a visit to the Blue House, which was recently opened up to the public. His presidential office was relatively tight-lipped that evening, saying only that he would “share his position once the final count is in.” But he appeared to be in high spirits.

The local elections had been the focus of Yoon’s timeline since his election on March 9. A win for his party was an urgent necessity after he triumphed with a historically slim 0.73-percentage point margin in the presidential race. Given the Democratic Party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, his administration would have been hard-pressed to draw any real momentum from a similarly feeble victory in the local elections.

As president-elect, Yoon embarked on a “thank you” tour to the different parts of South Korea, visiting Daegu/North Gyeongsang Province, the Honam region (North and South Jeolla provinces and Gwangju), Busan/South Gyeongsang Province, Incheon, the Chungcheong region, and Gyeonggi Province.

Indeed, the fact that his appearances coincided with those of major contenders in the local elections had some accusing him of interfering with the race. His direct and indirect participation in the campaigns of figures like Gyeonggi gubernatorial candidate Kim Eun-hye — who had been his spokesperson as president-elect — or Kim Tae-heum and Kim Young-hwan, candidates for the governorships in South and North Chungcheong provinces, respectively, had some suggesting the nominees were taking advantage of the wave of support for Yoon.

With the local election taking on aspects of an “extra inning” after the presidential election, Yoon appears likely to launch an aggressive drive in the wake of the victory.

This includes potentially speeding up his efforts that had been flagging since the presidential election, including his bid to pass a Government Organization Act amendment abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and his push to implement heavily conservative policies, such as measures for greater labor market flexibility.

In his first administrative policy speech before the National Assembly on May 16, Yoon said, “To boost competitiveness and create more jobs amid major changes to global industry structure, we need labor reforms that align with the global standard.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo declared plans for amending the Serious Accidents Punishment Act on Saturday. Yoon had stressed the importance of pension and education reforms in his speech to the National Assembly.

Investigations into past administration officials could also gain momentum. With his close associate, Minister of Justice Han Dong-hoon, standing at the top of a prosecution organization that has been reworked to accommodate Yoon’s former associates into leadership roles, this raises the possibility of a veritable system going into effect for investigations into blacklist allegations at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, the suspension of fund redemption procedures in connect with the asset management companies Lime and Optimus, and allegations concerning a development project in Seongnam’s Daejang neighborhood.

In a February press interview, then-candidate Yoon said, “Those people in the Moon Jae-in administration who have committed illegalities and improprieties must also be duly punished according to the law and system.”

Kim Hyung-joon, a professor at Myongji University, interprets the outcomes of the local election as “meaning that the people of South Korea approve of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s governing approach.”

“This creates a situation where the People Power Party can forge ahead with its vision and policies for a ‘Yoon model’ of liberal democracy and market economy, while the Democratic Party will have to take a step back in its role as a major opposition party,” he suggested.

The People Power Party (PPP) appears likely to speak out in the National Assembly. With at least 10 victories clinched out of 17 mayoral and gubernatorial races in South Korea’s metropolitan cities and provinces, the party leaders gathered in their situation room at 11:50 that night to congratulate themselves on the win.

“The fact that our party won the local elections on top of the presidential election suggests we have fully achieved a ‘change in administrations’ in the true sense,” said Kweon Seong-dong, the party’s floor leader.

“Having been given this responsibility, I intend to work even harder to see to it that we do not disappoint the South Korean people,” he added.

This return to power at the local level comes four years after the local elections of June 13, 2018, where the PPP suffered a rout everywhere except the traditionally conservative-leaning Daegu and North Gyeongsang regions. The latest victory comes on the heels of wins in the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections in April 2021 and this year’s presidential election.

In negotiations over the composition of the National Assembly during the second half of the year, the PPP appears likely to insist on heading the Legislation and Judiciary Committee.

Experts advised the administration and PPP not to ignore the importance of cooperation.

“President Yoon has gained a bit more political capital,” acknowledged Ahn Byong-jin, a professor of political science at the Kyung Hee University Global Academy for Future Civilizations.

“For his governing approach to gain momentum, he’s going to need to acknowledge the public’s sentiments and pursue unity,” he advised.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter

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