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Moon’s approval rating hinges on vaccine success

Winning back public support crucial for the president to have a productive final year in office

President Moon Jae-in speaks during his first Cabinet meeting this year at Cheong Wa Dae on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in speaks during his first Cabinet meeting this year at Cheong Wa Dae on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in is not a “lame duck” yet, but in the final stretch of his term he will need COVID-19 vaccines to win back public support, which has plummeted to record lows.

Moon has to confront a number of hot-button issues this year, ranging from the coronavirus to the controversy over whether he should grant pardons to two former presidents. It is also likely that he will seek a breakthrough in the stalled denuclearization talks with North Korea and the upcoming Biden administration in the US.

If the year is to be a productive one, however, Moon will need to win back support from the public.

Moon’s most recent approval rating, according to Realmeter on Monday, was 34.1 percent -- a record low for the president, who enjoyed widespread popularity until early 2020.

Critics say public support for Moon has sharply eroded over the past year because of soaring housing prices, the drawn-out battle with the prosecution and the delayed arrival of COVID-19 vaccines.

“People’s discontent accumulated over the years has just exploded with the vaccines, the most urgent life-or-death issue for them,” said Shin Yul, a politics professor at Myongji University.

“Even his ardent supporters, who used to think highly of his reform drive, are increasingly losing faith in the government and the president.”

Moon took office in May 2017 in a dramatic victory following the impeachment of his predecessor. Even after the goodwill honeymoon, he maintained an approval rating in the 60 percent range. 

The president also earned global praise for brokering the historic 2018 summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. But the failed second talks between Kim and Trump in 2019 left little room for Moon’s mediating role, and his push for engagement and dialogue with the North also hit a snag.

“Moon pushed hard on the talks with the North from the very beginning of his presidency because he learned during the Roh Moo-hyun administration that the issue cannot gain momentum in the final years of a presidency,” said political analyst Lee Yoon-geun.

“With no progress in the stalled talks, he had no other option but to focus on prosecutorial reform in the latter part of his presidency.”

The government’s bitter battle with the prosecution continued for more than a year, causing prolonged political tensions with opposition parties. Even though Moon succeeded in setting up a new corruption agency to investigate high-ranking government officials, including prosecutors, the public’s fatigue was deepening.

The government’s policy failures, especially on housing prices, fueled complaints.

Many critics point to the government’s mishandling of the heated housing market as a key factor behind the president’s falling popularity, with some saying it hurt Moon worse than the coronavirus pandemic.

The government introduced a series of regulations to contain soaring housing prices, but most were futile efforts. Charging higher taxes on both buyers and sellers further reduced supply, driving up prices.

“People in their 30s and 40s who voted for Moon make up a large portion of the potential buyers in the market. They are increasingly turning their backs on the president,” said professor Shin.

“Housing concerns will also affect voters in the upcoming Seoul mayoral election in April as the election is held after the nation’s moving season in spring.”

Moon’s approval ratings, however, seemed to be bouncing back early last year as the nation successfully controlled an earlier wave of coronavirus infections without lockdowns. The strong backing led to the ruling Democratic Party’s landslide win in the general elections in April.

But months later the government’s belated entry into the vaccine race incurred a backlash. While most advanced countries rushed to secure vaccines, South Korea’s priority was testing until the latest wave of infections swept the nation in mid-November. People’s fear of a “vaccine divide” dragged Moon’s approval ratings down to the 30s.

So is Moon a lame duck now? Critics say “not yet.” 

A rating in the 30s -- 38 percent as of Gallup’s most recent survey last month -- still places Moon ahead of his predecessors. And there are no clear signs that he has lost power, such as frequent disputes with the ruling party.

According to Gallup, conservative Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye won 37 percent and 32 percent approval, respectively, toward the end of their terms. Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, from the same liberal bloc as Moon, saw their ratings fall to 28 percent and 16 percent.

Lee, the political analyst, said Moon’s approval rating may have been hit hard by vaccines but his chance to recover also depends on vaccines, adding that other actions such as a Cabinet reshuffle would have a limited impact -- as was the case for previous administrations.

After weeks of rumors and speculations, the government said recently it has secured vaccines for 56 million people, more than sufficient for the nation’s population of 50 million. With the first round of vaccinations scheduled to start next month, more detailed plans for the vaccination campaign are expected to come out by the end of this month.

“It remains to be seen how much and how fast the vaccinations are carried out. Considering other countries are struggling to speed up the vaccinations, catching up with them largely depends on our preparedness,” Lee said.

“A relatively faster vaccination rate could relieve people’s concerns and boost the president’s approval ratings again.”

By Lee Ji-yoon (