SEOUL — In his last year in office, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has seen his approval ratings in a tailspin. His trademark North Korea diplomacy remains in tatters. Citizens are fuming over his repeatedly botched attempts to arrest soaring housing prices.
And on Wednesday, voters in South Korea’s two biggest cities dealt another crushing blow to the beleaguered leader.
Mr. Moon’s Democratic Party lost the mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan to the conservative opposition, the People Power Party. Critics are calling the results of the two by-elections a referendum on Mr. Moon and his government.
“The people vented their anger at the Moon government through these elections,” said Kim Chong-in, head of the People Power Party, referring to large margins by which its candidates won.
policy of engagement toward North Korea.
Wednesday’s mayoral elections showed that the Democratic Party faces steep challenges as voters once loyal to Mr. Moon — especially those in their 20s and 30s — abandon it in droves.
Oh Se-hoon, the People Power Party candidate, won the race in Seoul, the capital city of 10 million people. He routed Park Young-sun, the Democratic Party candidate and a former member of Mr. Moon’s cabinet, by more than 18 percentage points, according to voting results announced by the National Election Commission.
The Seoul mayor is considered South Korea’s second-most powerful elected official after the president.
died by suicide last year following accusations of sexual harassment. The former mayor of Busan, Oh Keo-don, stepped down last year amid accusations of sexual misconduct from multiple female subordinates.
The former mayors were both members of Mr. Moon’s Democratic Party and the president’s close allies. Their downfall weakened the moral standing of Mr. Moon’s progressive camp, which has cast itself as a clean, transparent and equality-minded alternative to its conservative opponents. Mr. Moon’s two immediate predecessors — Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak — were both conservatives and are now in prison following convictions on corruption charges.
Mr. Moon was elected in 2017, filling the power vacuum created by Ms. Park’s impeachment. As a former human rights lawyer, he enthralled the nation by promising a “fair and just” society. He vehemently criticized an entrenched culture of privilege and corruption that he said had taken root while conservatives were in power, and vowed to create a level playing field for young voters who have grown weary of dwindling job opportunities and an ever-expanding income gap.
Mr. Moon spent much of his first two years in power struggling to quell escalating tension between North Korea and the United States, successfully mediating diplomacy between the two countries. He shifted more of his attention to domestic issues after the two summit meetings between North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Donald J. Trump failed to produce a deal on nuclear disarmament or the easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
But things quickly turned sour on the home front as well.
In 2019, huge outdoor rallies erupted over accusations of forgery and preferential treatment in college and internship applications surrounding the daughter of Cho Kuk, Mr. Moon’s former justice minister and one of his closest allies.
The scandal flew in the face of Mr. Moon’s election promise of creating “a world without privilege,” and prompted outrage against the “gold-spoon” children of the elite, who glided into top-flight universities and cushy jobs while their “dirt-spoon” peers struggled to make ends meet in South Korea’s hobbled economy.