The results of Wednesday’s parliamentary by-elections in two constituencies of South Gyeongsang Province did not deliver a decisive victory to either of the opposing parties.
The races in Changwon and Tongyeong-Goseong had drawn keen attention as a barometer of voter sentiments ahead of next year’s nationwide parliamentary elections, which are set to be followed by a presidential vote two years later.
A candidate from the leftist Justice Party, who was also backed by the liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea, won in Changwon, while a contender from the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party emerged as the winner in Tongyeong-Goseong.
Though not one-sided, the by-election outcome may well be seen as portending a bitter fate that President Moon Jae-in and his party could face in the upcoming general election unless they change course.
In last June’s local elections, the ruling party clinched an overwhelming victory in Tongyeong-Goseong. But its candidate lost to the Liberty Korea Party contender by a large margin in Wednesday’s vote.
It also withdrew its candidate to support the runner from the leftist minor party in Changwon, where labor-backed progressive candidates have won in three of the four parliamentary elections since 2014. The parliamentary seat in the district has been vacant since Rep. Roh Hoe-chan of the Justice Party died last year while under suspicion of receiving illicit funds.
The progressive minor party’s contender with the backing of the ruling party defeated the Liberty Korea Party runner by a razor-thin margin.
The ruling party also failed to have its candidates chosen in by-elections to pick three municipal councilors in other parts of the country.
Such election outcomes show voters have become disenchanted with what Moon has done since he took office in May 2017. He is under increasing criticism for mishandling economic matters and selecting unqualified figures for ministerial posts.
Public opinion has been aggravated further by the revelation that Moon’s spokesman, who stepped down last week, made a speculative real estate investment in an urban redevelopment zone in Seoul.
If he accepts the by-election results as an early warning sign from the electorate, he needs to take a different course for the remainder of his five-year term.
First, he should reconsider his income-led growth policy, which is blamed for making the economy sluggish by increasing the burden on companies and worsening unemployment.
South Gyeongsang Province, a manufacturing hub for the auto and shipbuilding industries, has been bearing the brunt of the economic slowdown. During the by-election campaign, the ruling party focused on promoting its massive spending plan to boost the regional economy. Its efforts, however, apparently failed to soothe voter discontent with the misguided economic policy.
On the same day that the by-elections were held, Moon had a rare meeting with former government officials to seek their advice on ways to revitalize the economy. While meeting with representatives from civic organizations Monday, he acknowledged some failures of his economic initiatives.
It has yet to be seen whether such meetings will lead to a meaningful policy shift.
Moon also needs to refrain from pushing through the appointment of three nominees for ministerial posts, who were declared by opposition parties unfit to join the Cabinet. The president is authorized to appoint ministers without gaining parliamentary approval, but doing so would deepen a partisan strife with the opposition, making it harder to pass bills needed to bolster the economy.
The by-election results were a half success for Hwang Kyo-ahn, who took the helm of the main opposition party in February.
They represented a turnaround from a crushing defeat his party suffered in last June’s local elections, when it was still struggling with the fallout from the downfall of scandal-ridden conservative President Park Geun-hye. But the results fell short of cementing his leadership in the party and consolidating his status as a leading presidential hopeful.
Hwang, who served as prime minister under the Park administration, was ahead of other potential contenders in a poll gauging the popularity of prospective presidential candidates for three consecutive months in March.
Hwang, who stayed in the by-election districts throughout the campaign period, tried to draw voter support by raising the need to hold the Moon government responsible for the economic slowdown and other state affairs in shambles.
But the by-election results suggest he should go further to put forward concrete visions and policies, which could assure more voters that his party would be a credible alternative force.