The liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea won an overwhelming victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary election, which was seen as a midterm judgment on President Moon Jae-in’s five-year tenure that kicked off in May 2017.
It took 163 of the 253 constituencies across the country, while its satellite party formed to field proportional representation candidates garnered 17 seats.
This gives the ruling party a dominant majority in the 300-member National Assembly, allowing it to enact any legislation. With the help of other splinter liberal and progressive parties, the ruling party could even push through a constitutional revision, which requires approval from two-thirds of sitting lawmakers.
The novel coronavirus outbreak apparently shifted voters’ attention to how the Moon government has handled the health crisis from what it has done over the past three years.
Moon’s approval rating rose to a 17-month high of 54.4 percent last week on the back of the relatively successful containment of the virus, according to a poll released Monday. Until a few months ago, his support rate hovered around 40 percent amid a prolonged economic slump and corruption scandals involving his associates.
The fallout from the virus outbreak and competing rescue proposals by rival political parties engulfed all other issues during the election campaign.
Amid this atmosphere, more voters chose to cast ballots to back the government’s quarantine efforts and measures to cushion the economic impact of COVID-19.
The conservative main opposition United Future Party failed to neutralize the ruling party’s campaign strategy of riding on the public’s positive assessment of the way the government has handled the virus outbreak.
It proved ineffective in taking issue with what it calls the government’s misplaced policies that have dampened economic vitality, failed to denuclearize North Korea and weakened the South Korea-US alliance. Furthermore, it fell far short of convincing the electorate that it could put forward effective and substantial alternatives, leading most undecided voters to choose to give a stronger hand to the Moon government rather than keeping it in check.
The United Future Party took 84 constituencies and its sister party created to field proportional representation candidates secured 19 seats. With slightly over 100 seats, the main opposition party will be in no position to block legislative moves by the ruling party in the next parliament, which begins a four-year term May 30.
The ruling party’s lopsided victory is likely to lead the Moon administration to cling even more tightly to its misplaced policies, including an income-led growth drive and the plan to phase out nuclear power.
But it would not be good for the nation to stay on this same course down the road.
The income-led growth policy, backed by a string of pro-labor measures, has forced companies to reduce investment and employment and resulted in widening income inequality. The nuclear phaseout plan has pushed a large profitable manufacturer of power generation equipment into a serious financial predicament.
It was noteworthy that the ruling party shied away from trumpeting the performance of the Moon government in the economic arena throughout the campaign. Still, it never pledged to try to redress the administration’s ill-conceived policies.
Now, Moon and ruling party lawmakers need to rethink what should be done to ensure that the nation can overcome the economic challenges it is sure to face from the global spread of the coronavirus.
The International Monetary Fund predicted Tuesday that South Korea’s economy would shrink 1.2 percent this year, as the pandemic disrupts global businesses and lockdown measures ravage consumer demand. It would mark the first annual contraction of the country’s economy since 1998, when it was hit by the Asian financial crisis.
Government data released earlier this week showed that the economic difficulties faced by the nation were rapidly getting worse.
In the first 10 days of April, outbound shipments from Asia’s fourth-largest economy dropped 18.6 percent from a year earlier to $12.2 billion.
The amount in state allowances paid to those unemployed or seeking jobs soared to a record high of nearly 900 billion won ($733 million) in March, an increase of 40.4 percent from the same month last year.
The Moon government needs to readjust its misplaced policies and accelerate the regulatory and labor reforms needed to enable local companies to weather the virus-caused hardships and restore global competitiveness.
Whether it succeeds in coping with economic challenges down the road will be a key factor in deciding the fate of the ruling party’s contender in the next presidential election, less than two years from now.