Approval ratings for politicians, including presidents, tend to fluctuate. But the recent downward trend in President Moon Jae-in’s popularity should sound alarm bells.
The results of the latest public opinion survey, released by the pollster Realmeter last week, showed that Moon’s approval rating fell to 52 percent -- the lowest level since he took office in May last year. It was the eighth consecutive week that it declined.
A combination of factors must have worked together to bring down the popularity of the chief executive -- from the economic downturn and grim job market to the lack of progress in denuclearizing North Korea to ethical lapses on the part of presidential officials to unilateralism.
Among these, unilateralism stands out. The Moon government, which was swept into power in the wake of the ouster by impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, has been overconfident and pushed for many controversial policies in the name of reform and of righting long-accumulated wrongs.
The government’s decision, in the absence of public consensus, to phase out nuclear power generation is one example. Criticism of the controversial energy plan has grown even stronger in the wake of Taiwan’s decision to reverse a similar anti-nuclear-power policy.
In yet another case of unilateralism, the government intervened in the credit card market, twisting the arms of companies to lower the fees they charge small businesses.
The new credit card service rates were announced Monday, only four days after Moon issued a directive on the matter. The announcement must have been choreographed, as chief financial regulator Choi Jong-ku had called in the executives of eight major credit companies one day after Moon gave his instructions.
The Moon government is not the first to twist the arms of private companies, be they mobile phone carriers or credit card service providers. Indeed, credit card companies have had to lower the fees they charge businesses seven times since 2007.
In other words, in Korea, matters that should be decided by market forces are too often at the mercy of the government and politicians who espouse populist policies. What’s ironic is that the lowering of credit card-processing fees -- an apparent populist move to benefit mom and pop shops and other small businesses -- is an attempt to right the wrongs of previous populist policies.
The chief aim of the reduction in card-processing fees is to mitigate difficulties facing small businesses, which have borne the brunt of the Moon government’s “income-led growth” policy -- including, among other things, the rapid increase in the minimum wage.
Contrary to the government’s assurances -- Moon once said 90 percent of the economic impact of the higher minimum wage was positive -- the plan backfired, hitting contingent workers and small businesses especially hard.
For instance, this year alone 290,000 jobs were wiped out in the wholesale, retail, restaurant and lodging, and maintenance and rental sectors. All were heavily affected by the higher minimum wage.
It is no surprise that the income gap keeps widening. The average monthly income for earners in the bottom 20 percent bracket dropped 7 percent on-year to 1,217,600 won, whereas the figure for the top 20 percent increased 8.8 percent to 9,735,700 won -- the widest gap in 11 years. Despite Moon’s pledge to form “a government that creates jobs,” job figures continue to be disastrous, especially among young adults.
Besides the failed economic policies, there are more factors in the Moon government’s declining approval rating. One is its impatience for improved relations with North Korea, even while the denuclearization process is deadlocked. Another is the internal feud in the ruling party over the state prosecution’s investigation of Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung.
An additional factor in the diminished popularity of the Moon government is the arrogance of the ruling elite, as seen in ruling party chief Lee Hae-chan’s repeated statement that the party needs to stay in power for at least 20 years.
The same Realmeter survey found that the ruling party’s approval rating shed 1.3 percentage points to 39.2 percent, while the main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s rose for a fourth straight week to 22.9 percent even though the conservative party has not done anything impressive.
This should be a reminder to the ruling elite that they could face a crisis of confidence unless they abandon their unilateralism and arrogance.