SEOUL • South Korean President Moon Jae-in's ruling party suffered a devastating defeat in a special election for key mayoral posts amid political scandals and policy blunders, vote counts showed yesterday.
Millions of South Koreans went to the polls on Wednesday to elect chiefs of the country's two largest cities - the capital Seoul and the port city of Busan - among 21 local offices up for grabs.
The election was widely seen as a key barometer for potential political shifts for Mr Moon's progressive party, with less than one year before the March 9 presidential election.
Mr Moon and his Democratic Party have seen their approval ratings plunge to record lows in recent months amid skyrocketing housing prices, deepening inequality, sex abuse scandals and souring ties with North Korea.
"The election was a referendum on the Moon administration's economic policy failures, corruption scandals and the property speculation cases," said political science professor Kim Hyung-joon of Myongji University in Seoul.
Mr Moon took office in 2017 promising to create jobs and a level playing field for all Koreans where hard-working people can afford a home and raise a family.
But median home prices have surged more than 50 per cent in Seoul since 2017, the fastest pace in the world and under any elected South Korean leader, despite some 25 rounds of cooling measures, according to statistics site Numbeo.
Anger at runaway home prices and an ongoing investigation into accusations of insider land trading, involving employees at a state housing developer, politicians and other officials, wiped out earlier rises in Mr Moon's popularity from the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The ruling party's defeat could make him a dead-duck president, stripping him of any remaining policy momentum, much of which he had already lost," Prof Kim said.
Mr Moon said yesterday that he "took the people's punishment seriously", vowing efforts to improve the economy and resolve the real estate corruption scandal, according to his spokesman.
In Seoul, conservative People Power contender Oh Se-hoon secured 57.5 per cent of votes, clinching victory over Democratic candidate Park Young-sun, who garnered 39.2 per cent, according to the state election commission.
With his win, Mr Oh returns to a post he held from 2006 to 2011, allowing the conservatives to retake control of the government of the capital, home to nearly 20 per cent of the country's 52 million population, for the first time in a decade.
Mr Oh pledged utmost efforts to rebuild Seoul and lay the groundwork for a government change through next year's presidential election. "I will prove we're competent, different and good at work," he said during a party video conference after taking office yesterday.
Ms Park conceded defeat, vowing "soul-searching over punishment from citizens".
The Democratic Party's leadership has resigned, taking responsibility for its losses.
In Busan, People Party candidate Park Hyung-joon received 62.7 per cent of the votes, beating Democrat Kim Young-choon, who earned 34.4 per cent.
Voter turnout was 58.2 per cent in Seoul and 52.7 per cent in Busan from some 8.4 million and 2.9 million eligible to cast ballots, respectively, exceeding 50 per cent in a snap election for local offices for the first time, according to the commission.