SEOUL – South Korean President Moon Jae-in must win upcoming elections to avoid becoming a lame duck in the second half of his single, five-year term. But first he’s got to consolidate power within his own party.
To do that, Moon’s looking close to home. Almost 60 former aides and staffers from the presidential office and government are running in primaries that begin Monday — an unprecedentedly large number. Their success or failure will shape the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s fortunes on April 15, when all 300 National Assembly seats are up for grabs.
While midterm elections are important to presidents the world over, they’re particularly high stakes for South Korean leaders, who have a history of getting bogged down by corruption scandals after defeats at the polls. Getting more trusted aides — known as “knights” — into parliament could also help Moon avoid the past pattern of ruling party lawmakers breaking with presidents as their terms wind down. There’s already been signs of dissent with the ranks.
“It’s critical for Moon to build and array his own knights at the National Assembly,” said Park Sung-min, head of MIN Consulting, a political consulting firm in Seoul. “Former South Korean presidents have seen their policies rejected by their own party as the next contender for power starts to speak up close to the end of their terms and authorities leak secrets in typical signs of a lame duck.”
The Democratic Party now holds 129 seats — or 43 percent — of the assembly, making it necessary to seek support from minor centrist and left-leaning parties to pass government proposals and initiatives. A new coalition of right-leaning groups called the United Future Party holds 114 seats. Five seats are unoccupied.
Pressure is mounting on Moon to accomplish more of what he promised in his May 2017 election in the wake of former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and removal amid corruption allegations. His once sky-high popularity has fallen amid dissatisfaction with his efforts to address South Korea’s yawning income gap and stalled push to secure a lasting peace with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The deadly coronavirus outbreak, meanwhile, has undercut hopes of an economic recovery, with Moon hinting at an extra budget to help offset the damage and raising the country’s infectious disease alert to the highest level. Local cases of the virus have soared tenfold to more than 600 in a matter of days, despite Moon’s assurances earlier this month that South Korea would terminate the disease “before long.”
Recent polls show public sentiment regarding Moon is evenly divided with almost one-third of voters undecided. A Gallup Korea survey released earlier this month found that 45 percent of the respondents believed the opposition should win the election to check Moon’s power, while 43 percent said more seats should go to the president’s party.
Although the Democratic Party led the United Future Party in the latest poll 36 percent to 23 percent, the large number of unaligned voters makes predictions difficult. Two former prime ministers who are among the most popular potential presidential contenders — Lee Nak-yon, who served under Moon, and Hwang Kyo-ahn, who served under Park — are running in the district of where the presidential office sits.
And while the main opposition blocs have joined forces under one banner, Moon faces divisions between his own supporters. Former Moon spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom withdrew his bid for a National Assembly seat earlier this month after questions about his Seoul property investments caused the Democratic Party to balk at certifying his candidacy.
Moon has also risked alienating some backers with his support for former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a close confidant who was indicted in December on a dozen charges including bribery. Moon’s government subsequently reassigned top prosecutors in the office leading the investigation into Cho’s case, while the president urged the public “to let this Cho Kuk issue go.”
The scandal has led some supporters, such as Park Chan-hoon, a lawyer who runs a boutique law firm in Seoul, to cut ties with the Democratic Party. “I see no hope in this party. My only hope now is to see you change,” he wrote in a letter to the party in January.
Such tensions make victory in the primaries, which are scheduled to wrap up Saturday, and the broader election in April a matter of personal survival for Moon. The past two presidents before Moon — Park and Lee Myung-bak — have been jailed for corruption after leaving office.
Moon’s ally and one-time boss, former President Roh Moo-hyun, was accused of bribery just months after leaving office in February 2008. He committed suicide as prosecutors launched an investigation into the allegations.
“I want to be forgotten when my term ends,” Moon told reporters in January. “Koreans probably won’t see another former president be in trouble after leaving office.”