Will COVID-19 vaccines boost Moon’s approval ratings?

Posted on : 2021-03-07 10:17 KST Modified on : 2021-03-10 17:10 KST
Moon’s approval rating hinges on how successful the vaccines are
President Moon Jae-in watches a doctor receive the first dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a public health center in Seoul on Feb. 26. (Yonhap News)
President Moon Jae-in watches a doctor receive the first dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a public health center in Seoul on Feb. 26. (Yonhap News)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in observed the country’s first administration of a COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 26. The beginning of inoculations comes a year and month after the first confirmed COVID-19 case was diagnosed in South Korea in January 2020.

After observing the vaccination, Moon posted a message to his Facebook page reading, “I am pleased to share with the public my hope that a return to daily life is not far off.”

“With a very high rate of eligible individuals expressing hopes of receiving the vaccine and a well-prepared vaccination plan in place, inoculations will proceed quickly and without setbacks,” he predicted.

Why the vaccines are so important

It was significant that Moon himself was present to observe the first vaccination that day. Last year, COVID-19 posed serious challenges to heads of state all over the world. Donald Trump failed in his bid for reelection as US president due to his failure to contain the pandemic, with the US ranking first worldwide in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

In contrast, Moon seized the opportunity to show his own leadership by marshaling the administration’s full capabilities to fend off the virus.

Before the pandemic came along, he had few political assets in his column. The employment situation had worsened, real estate prices were spiking and the Korean Peninsula peace process had ground to a halt. The ruling Democratic Party was able to come away victorious in last year’s general election due to Moon’s success in more or less keeping COVID-19 from spreading domestically.

But when it came to acquiring COVID-19 vaccine, it was slow off the blocks. Despite experts sharing their concerns about a major wave in the winter, the administration maintained that the situation was not urgent. Even when other countries were grabbing as much vaccine as they could — spurred into action by the virus’s spread — Seoul insisted that the negotiations with multinational pharmaceuticals shouldn’t be a one-way street.

But by the end of last year, South Korean public opinion had soured. As the US, the UK, Israel and Singapore all began their COVID-19 inoculations, many blasted the Moon administration for moving so slowly to acquire vaccines. The lifting of the social distancing level drew mounting complaints from small business operators.

The Blue House found itself reeling as the opposition went on the attack, accusing it of dragging its feet in acquiring vaccines. Moon’s approval rating dipped below 40% (according to Gallup Korea polling).

“COVID-19 is the biggest topic of interest for people, and it influences their ratings in all areas,” explained Jang Deok-hyeon, a Gallup Korea analyst.

“The factor with the single largest influence on positive assessments of the president’s job performance has been the COVID-19 situation.”

The Blue House rushed to compile and release explanatory materials, including remarks from closed-door meetings stating that Moon had issued vaccine-related directives on 12 occasions last year. Moon took the somewhat unusual step of sharing his own video meetings with the heads of Moderna and other multinational pharmaceutical companies responsible for making COVID-19 vaccines.

“The thing responsible for the president’s low approval rating late last year was the COVID-19 situation,” a Blue House official said.

“It will be difficult for [the Democratic Party] to win the Seoul mayor election unless the COVID-19 situation can be brought under control,” the official predicted.

Future prospects

The vaccine is a game-changer when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic — which means that vaccine administration will be a game-changer for the remaining year or so of Moon’s term in office.

Moon’s approval rating will have an impact on the by-election for Seoul mayor a month from now. Many politicians are predicting that it could be the beginning of the end for Moon if the Seoul mayoral race is lost to the opposition.

Yet, even with the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases dropping from over 1,000 to around 400 per day, Moon’s approval rating has yet to climb back above the 40% line after its freefall late last year. On this basis, more and more politicians are concluding the administration is already on its last legs.

Now that the long-awaited vaccinations have begun, could it help propel an approval rating rebound?

“There’s no way to know that yet,” said Jang Deok-hyeon.

“In terms of how successful the vaccines will be in returning us to normal life, this week’s survey showed 26% of respondents predicting things would be back to normal by the end of the year. The situation doesn’t appear clear-cut enough for people to pin their hopes on the vaccines,” he explained.

South Korea is still far behind other countries in its vaccinations. The New York Times’ COVID-19 vaccine tracking page names 69 countries as having begun administering vaccines; South Korea does not yet appear on the list.

According to poll findings shared by Gallup Korea on Feb. 26, when respondents were asked whether they agreed that life in South Korea would generally return to normal by the end of 2021, 26% of them predicted it would be “more or less normal.” Sixty-nine percent said it would “not be back to normal,” while 5% said they did not know or declined to respond.

Many respondents pessimistically predicted that they were unlikely to enjoy a mask-free end of the year with family. Moon is likely well aware that his ratings will hinge on that question.

(The survey in question was administered to 1,000 people between Feb. 23 and 25. The margin of error was ±3.1 percentage points with a 95% confidence level. More details are available on the Gallup Korea website.)

By Lee Wan, staff reporter

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

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