08.11.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

As a barometer of voter sentiment, the by-election in Gangseo-gu District is keenly watched. What does the victory for the Democrats mean?

As a barometer of voter sentiment

On October 11, an early by-election was held in Seoul for the chief of the Gangseo-gu district. Seven candidates, including Jin Kyo-hoon of the main opposition force, the Democratic Party of Korea, and Kim Tae-woo of the ruling People Power Party (PPP), were registered to run, according to Central Election Commission data released on October 4.

Since the election was considered a predictor of the sentiments of the capital’s voters ahead of the National Assembly elections, which would take place on April 10, 2024, it attracted a lot of media attention. Despite the fact that this is only a by-election with around 500,000 participants, there would be no more voting until April, and accordingly, experts interpreted the outcome as a kind of political barometer.

In addition, also running for the position on the conservative side was Kim Tae-woo, a former Blue House special inspector, whose revelations made headlines in 2019. Basically, he was to blame for the fuss surrounding Cho Kuk. As a result, Kim was charged with disclosing state secrets, but he was able to run for office in the Gangseo District before the judgement was delivered. Kim was elected due to a wave of dissent, becoming the district’s first conservative in power in 12 years, but on May 18, 2023, the Supreme Court reiterated probation and Kim lost his office. But on August 15, Yoon Suk-yeol pardoned Kim at the annual presidential amnesty, and he decided to run for the same seat once more.

Former deputy national police chief and Democratic candidate Jin Kyo-hoon entered politics (or rather, the Democrats) in August 2023. Before that, Jin held a number of high-ranking police jobs, including that of police chief in the Democrat-stronghold province of North Jeolla.

The opposition and the ruling party both made significant contributions to the process. On October 5, bedridden opposition leader Lee Jae-myung, who is receiving medical attention after a 24-day hunger strike, appealed for support for his party’s candidate, saying this election is the starting point of stopping the “regime’s tyranny and opening a new future. I hope everyone participates in the grand march of people’s victory and advancement of history.” Lee urged viewers to vote for the Democratic candidate in a screenshot from the video that went viral online.

Curiously, the campaign’s motto was “Honest cop vs. previously convicted prosecutor,” and Lee urged more people to participate in early voting on Friday and Saturday.

The election campaign was co-chaired by DPK floor leader Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo, who called on voters to do everything in their power to secure Jin’s victory, as “this by-election is very important because it will determine whether a retrograded Korea can move forward.” “We should make judgment on the arrogant, self-righteous, and incapable Yoon administration through the by-election,” said Rep. Jung Chung-rae, a Supreme Council member.

Conservatives were behind, but not by much. As stated by Kim Gi-hyeon, head of the People Power Party, “this by-election is about whether we will elect a capable worker or opt for a parachute engaged in political conflicts… It’s a choice between addressing the concerns regarding people’s livelihoods or engaging in political disputes.” Yun Jae-ok, another conservative politician, stated: “We must win the general election, but for the Yoon administration’s success, we must win this election first.” As a result, the PPP’s leadership issued guidelines, obliging its MPs to participate in campaigns to support the candidate in their constituencies every day and report back.

The party has provided a group of exceptionally capable political leaders for candidate Kim. Former Unification Minister Rep. Kwon Young-se, former presidential candidate Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, and former lawmaker Na Kyung-won served as Kim’s advisors (Note that these individuals represented the three main factions of the party).

  The vote, which ended on October 7, recorded the greatest turnout in South Korean by-election history, 22.64 percent. Both sides agreed that there were no scandals or instances of mudslinging during the election campaign.

What was the outcome? The Central Election Commission reports that Jin Kyo-hoon received 56.52% of the total votes cast. Before the official election results were made public, Kim Tae-woo accepted defeat in the race with 39.37% of the vote, a 17.15% deficit. However, 48.7% of eligible voters actually cast ballots.

Jin Kyo-hoon referred to his victory as “the victory of common sense, the victory of principles,” and he pledged to put “every second and minute” of his efforts into helping the residents of Gangseo District. Kim Tae-woo, on his part, expressed regret over not living up to the expectations of his supporters.

Democrats portrayed the vote’s conclusion as an incredible success and a total moral setback for the incumbent ruling party. DPK Chairman Rep. Lee Jae-myung wrote on Facebook* that the by-election result is “a great victory of the people and a grave judgement against (the Yoon administration’s) failures in state affairs.” “It is an order given by the public telling politicians to get their act together and restore the public’s livelihood.”

On October 12, Hong Ihk-pyo urged the president to accept blame for the defeat of the ruling party by beginning with a total reorganization of the Cabinet. “The resignation of the prime minister, the dismissal of the justice minister, and the recall of unqualified people nominated to the Cabinet should be the starting point.”

In light of this, former People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok stated during a radio interview with broadcaster KBS on Dec. 2 that the PPP may opt for an interim leadership headed by Land Minister Won Hee-ryong, if the party loses in the by-election.

The Conservatives failed to consider the loss to be tragic. On October 12, the leaders of the ruling party vowed to pay attention to the opinions of the populace and take unprecedented steps to win back their confidence. “Our party has put forward our best efforts with sincerity but was unable to receive the choice of the Gangseo Ward residents,” PPP leader Kim Gi-hyeon said in a party leadership meeting. “We will analyze the reasons for the defeat in a cool-headed manner and come up with extraordinary measures to win the general elections.” “The party’s victory would be nothing more than a penicillin shot,” a presidential spokesperson said the same day.

Yoon Suk-yeol instructed his staff on October 13 to “learn a lesson” from the ruling party’s setback and to “calmly and wisely” pursue relocation, according to a top presidential official.

On the one hand, Kim’s reputation as a whistleblower has already been diminished, and we may talk about a significant loss for conservatives. Big stories from three or four years ago are completely forgotten. On the other hand, you can’t say that the Democrats won this election by a wide margin either. First, the low turnout, with less than half of voters showing up, suggests that the vast majority of Seoul residents “abstained,” and there is often a “plague on both your houses” attitude behind not going to the polls. Echoes of the scandal were still important at one point, when Kim was vying for county executive, but the region was largely a Democratic stronghold.

All three of the politicians from this city district ran as Democrats in the last 2020 legislative election, winning by an average margin of 18%. Jin gained a fraction of a percent less; therefore, from the author’s perspective, the Democrats’ victory just served to show that their support is still strong in this constituency. Kim’s triumph would have meant more, but he first went into other people’s neighborhood because he thought that if he won there, he would win again. Furthermore, Democrats campaigned harder than conservatives. Despite the fact that Lee Jae-myung, the head of the opposition, has not yet fully recovered from his hunger strike, he has been quite active during the election campaign. The Conservatives did not put much effort into their campaign.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that this is about protest voting, which is more against the forces currently in power than it is for the opposition, similar to the Democrats’ unsuccessful election in 2021. And with evaluations ranging between 30 and 35 percent, this level of unhappiness is pretty consistent with the average level of dissatisfaction with the Yoon administration. The president, who is not a populist like Moon Jae-in, is obviously not overly concerned about this matter.

So, what now? Conservatives should observe and assess the outcomes of the loss and possibly make some changes to the ruling party’s infrastructure, but these changes won’t be significant. There will be some reshuffling, but it will be more of an appearance than a structural reshuffling. A huge number of presidential officials are said to be planning to resign in the coming months in order to run in the legislative elections.

In terms of the Democratic Party’s triumph, it will improve the position of Lee Jae-myung’s followers. Thus confirming their leadership. Lee’s opponents’ position will be weakened, especially since there is no leader among them who can oppose the chairman.

To summarize, an important point has been made, and it demonstrates that, while the Democratic Party is experiencing a crisis, largely due to Lee Jae-myung’s leadership, and attempts at renovation, which the author will discuss separately, have not yet been successful, dissatisfaction with Yoon Suk-yeol among the South Korean masses compensates for this problem. It would be wrong to draw comparisons between the results of the Gangseo District election and the election in 2021, during which “the Democrats lost Seoul,” but it is also false to assume that the Democrats will suffer an equally dreadful defeat in six months as the Republicans did four years ago. The author begins his analysis of the electoral process with this article because the contest will undoubtedly be more exciting.

* Facebook is banned in Russia.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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