South Korea’s ruling party suffers devastating defeat in mayoral election

South Korea’s conservative opposition won victories in votes for the mayors of the country’s two largest cities, the results show Thursday, in a bad sign for the Moon Jae-in Democratic Party a year before the next presidential election.

Both Democratic posts became vacant last year as a result of allegations of sexual harassment, with Seoul Mayor Park Won soon killing himself while the leader of the southern port of Busan resigned.

Between them, the two municipalities account for about a quarter of the national population and the vote was considered a significant barometer of public opinion ahead of the March 2022 presidential election.

In Seoul, the conservative People Power Party defeated Oh Se-hoon by 57.5 percent to 39.2 percent, according to the National Election Commission, and won all of the city’s 25 districts.

“I can’t hold back the heavy sense of responsibility that really weighs on me,” Oh said.

The conservative victory margin in Busan was even higher, at 62.7 percent to 34.4 percent.

Moon and his Democratic Party have struggled to downgrade in recent months due to widespread outrage over rising house prices, deepening inequality and corruption and sexual abuse scandals involving senior officials.

In a statement, the ruling party said it “humbly accepts the public sentiment shown in the election results” and added: “We have caused the public great disappointment due to our shortcomings.”

The two new mayors will serve the remaining 14 months of their predecessors’ four-year term.

It was the first time that turnout in local elections had exceeded 50 percent, the commission added.

Moon – who is limited to a single term of the Southern constitution – saw his approval ratings fall to a record low of 32 percent last week, with 58 percent disapproving of the job he does, according to a Gallup Korea survey.

The latest result of the vote stands in stark contrast to the parliamentary elections a year ago, when the Democratic Party enjoyed a sweeping victory that gave it a super-majority in the National Assembly.