The by-elections for mayors in Seoul and Busan ended in landslide defeats for President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party. Winning 57.5 percent of the vote, former Mayor Oh Se-hoon returned to City Hall 10 years after resigning over opposition to free school lunches. In Busan, that Democratic Party candidate won only 34.4 percent of the vote, a huge drop from the 55.2 percent it won in June 2018.
Two main currents running against the Democratic Party came together to produce the storm. The first is anger over insider real estate speculation that first appeared among employees of the Korea Land & Housing Corp. but spread to Kim Sang-jo, Mr. Moon’s former chief economic policy adviser. Since its beginning, the Moon administration has adopted a series of strict measures to control real estate prices but has failed to do so, angering many in the process.
The second current is anger at a perceived holier-than-thou attitude in the Democratic Party. For years, the party cultivated its pro-democracy image by casting conservatives as corrupt and hypocritical. The controversy surrounding former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk in 2019 and sexual harassment accusations against mayors of Seoul and Busan in 2020 damaged the party’s image. Public fatigue with the pandemic and concern over the slow vaccine rollout are increasingly weighing on the Moon administration.
A dig into the exit poll data reveals almost shocking result: Oh Se-hoon won 72.5 percent of the vote of men in their 20s. This was second to women over 60 who supported Oh by a stunning 73.3 percent. Oh’s next highest rate of support came from men over 60 (70.2 percent) and men in their 30s (63.8 percent). Oh’s high rate of support among people over 60 fits longstanding conservative voting patterns in South Korea and elsewhere.
The high level of support among men in their 20s and 30s, however, deviates sharply from historical trends in South Korea. Since the April 19 uprising against President Syngman Rhee in 1960, younger generations, particularly of student age, have led the push for political and social change. They protested and rebelled against authoritarian regimes and stifling social mores.
The sharpness of the electoral rejection raises important questions. What caused it? What does it mean for the future?
A deeper dive into the exit polls shows that Oh Se-hoon received the lowest rate, 40.9 percent, of support from women in their 20s. This created a huge gender gap of 31.6 percent in support for Oh. The next largest gender gap was 13.2 percent for voters in their 30s. Voters in their 40s and 50s, women supported Oh more than men by about 5 percent; the gap narrowed to 3 percent for voters over 60.
Patterns for voters over 40 conform to trends that emerged in the 1980s. Support for conservative candidates rises with age and women favor them slightly over men. The patterns for voters under 30 are new. Instead of generational leanings, gender plays the dominant role.
A research report by the Seoul Institute in 2020, asked different generations to rank their top social issues for severity. People in their 20s ranked “gender conflict” first, followed closely by “progressive vs conservative conflict” and “real estate policy.” “Inequality” and “generational conflict” ranked at the bottom. By contrast, people in their 40s, ranked “progressive vs. conservative conflict” first, followed closely by “real estate policy.” “Inequality,” “social hierarchy,” “regular vs. nonregular employment” rounded out the top five.
Combined with voting patterns, the data suggest that men in their 20s are angry and expressed their feelings by voting against the dominant party. By contrast, women in their 20s viewed voting for Oh as a step backward. Like young people elsewhere, young Koreans are worried about finding their way ahead, but they have diverged in how they express those worries. Men wanted to shock the Democratic Party, whereas women stuck with it because they perceived the alternative as worse.
The divergent voting patterns among people in their 20s and, to a lesser extent, in their 30s suggest a lack of loyalty to ideology or party. Instead, these voters are up for grabs. They want substantive solutions to issues rather than empty political gestures. And, as the recent election showed, they are prepared to hold politicians accountable at the ballot box.
The implications for the president election next March are clear. Younger voters will be looking for someone who inspires confidence in his or her ability to tackle issues facing South Korea in the 2020s. Their voices will be stronger if men and women could agree on who that is.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.