Dipping approval ratings may put Blue House in conflict with Democratic Party  

Posted on : 2019-09-20 16:44 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Fallout from Cho Kuk appointment has put ruling party in turmoil
South Korean President Moon Jae-in appoints Justice Minister Cho Kuk at the Blue House on Sept. 9. (Blue House photo pool)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in appoints Justice Minister Cho Kuk at the Blue House on Sept. 9. (Blue House photo pool)

“A presidential election vote of 41% is a psychological red line. Once the governance approval rating drops below that, it’s going to have a negative impact on relations between the party and the Blue House.”

The ruling Democratic Party is in turmoil amid the fallout from the Cho Kuk scandal, which has continued for more than a month now. Speaking to the Hankyoreh on Sept. 19, a first-term lawmaker from the party representing a constituency in the Greater Seoul area predicted that discord between the party and the Blue House would begin to manifest as the situation drags on. Just before Cho was appointed as minister of justice, the lawmaker said the administration had “no choice but to back Cho to avoid a lame duck situation.” Now, having perceived the chilly sentiments among constituency voters, the same lawmaker said, “I’m not sure we made the right call.”

“With one damaging media report after another about Cho recently, even the die-hard supporters are starting to voice apprehensions,” the lawmaker explained.

“They’re saying, ‘This is bad news. We may be in for trouble if this keeps up.’ Meanwhile, the ordinary voters are blasting President Moon Jae-in and asking what makes him any different from Park Geun-hye.”

The local sentiments reported by lawmakers are borne out in trends from recently published survey findings. On Sept. 19, Real Meter published results from survey of 2,007 voters nationwide on Sept. 16–18 commissioned by TBS (95% confidence level, margin of error ±2.2 percentage points). The findings showed an approval rating of 43.8% for President Moon’s governance – the lowest rate since he took office. Negative ratings were also at a new high, up 3.0 percentage points from the week before to 53.0%. Notable declines were observed in the 20–59 age groups and the Greater Seoul area and Honam and Chungcheong regions. Also noticeable was a narrowing of the gap in support for the Democratic Party and the Liberty Korea Party to 4.3 percentage points among moderate swing voters. The story was much the same in results from an MBC opinion survey published on Sept. 17. A Gallup Korea survey showed consistently more negative than positive ratings of Moon’s performance since the fourth week of August, when issues concerning Cho’s daughter’s scholarship and primary author listing on an academic paper first surfaced.

Falling support for Moon likely to affect April 2020 general election

Anxiety among Democratic Party lawmakers is likely to worsen as the April 2020 general election approaches.

“President Moon’s support ratings keep slipping. We’re taking it very seriously,” said a first-term lawmaker from the Chungcheong region. “If you meet residents back home, they’re all frustrated about ‘why it had to be him [Cho].’”

One prominent lawmaker in the Greater Seoul said, “When you meet other lawmakers you’re close with at the [National Assembly] members’ hall or main building, they’ll always ask, ‘What are the sentiments like?’ And everyone’s shaking their heads.

“Apart from Honam, everywhere is a danger zone. We could fail to even get 100 seats in the general election,” the lawmaker predicted.

The situation is similarly dire in Moon’s own home region of Busan/South Gyeongsang Province (PK). Chun Jae-soo, a lawmaker who heads the local party committee in Busan, argued that critical views are “in the majority, but not an overwhelming one” – but others begged to differ. A senior party officer familiar with the situation in the region said, “The mood on the ground is even worse than the poll numbers. There’s a real fear that we would end up going back to the way things were before the 20th general election.”

Some of the lawmakers had harsh words to say about Moon’s die-hard supporters and prominent figures who back the Democratic Party. A Greater Seoul-area lawmaker lamented, “With President Moon’s fan club going on about ‘defending Cho Kuk,’ and prominent progressives like Rhyu Si-min and Kim Ou-joon and major party figures joining the chorus, things reached a point where they couldn’t ‘withdraw their forces.’”

“This kind of mood could end up continuing on to the general election. Once voters have turned their backs, it will be hard turning them back around even with reform nominations and broader-reaching changes,” the lawmaker said.

Experts said that without Moon taking action himself to address the “Cho variable,” the only option now is to produce concrete results.

“The negative views toward Cho Kuk could be remedied if the party and administration show a strong commitment in areas like public welfare policy and political and prosecutorial reforms,” suggested Lee Gwan-hu, a political science research fellow at the Sogang University Institute of Social Sciences.

“Now that they’ve gone ahead with [Cho’s] appointment, they need to show some visible reform results by the end of the year at least,” Lee said.

By Kim Won-chul, Kim Kyu-nam, Seo Young-ji, and Jang Na-rye, staff reporters

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