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Sweeping local elections victory gives boost to Moon's North Korea policy

President Moon Jae-in / Yonhap

Conservative parties face dismal future

By Kim Rahn

The overwhelming victory of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) in the local elections shows high public support and approval for the Moon Jae-in administration, especially amid the ongoing reconciliatory mood with North Korea which eclipsed other political issues.

With the victory, Moon's reform drives and peace overtures are likely to gain momentum. On the other hand, the conservative opposition bloc will face an even harder time winning back public support. The fall of the current party leaders, including Chairman Hong Joon-pyo of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), is inevitable and some parties may seek mergers.

The local elections were the first nationwide poll since Moon took office in May last year, and thus were regarded as a mid-term evaluation of his administration, especially because by-elections were also held for 12 National Assembly seats.

The DPK's sweeping victory had long been expected considering the ever-high approval rating of the President, which keeps hovering over 70 percent. Such a forecast became firm along with the peace atmosphere surrounding the Korean Peninsula that has included two inter-Korean summits and the first-ever Washington-Pyongyang summit.

Boosted by the huge victory, the ruling bloc will be able to carry out its reform policies more easily and confidently because the election outcome means public support for the administration and ruling party.

What's more encouraging for the DPK is that its candidates won in districts that used to be the conservatives' home turf, including Busan, Ulsan and South Gyeongsang Province.

The by-election results were also in favor of the ruling bloc. These will help easier passage of the government's reform bills at the Assembly, while many reform drives have so far faced setbacks due to opposition mainly from the LKP. A DPK member is also likely to take the Assembly's speaker position for the latter half of the 20th Assembly.

Contrary to the upbeat mood of the ruling bloc, opposition parties, especially the main conservative LKP, are finding no way out from the collapse.

The LKP urged people to vote for the party and not for the DPK by saying the ruling bloc could turn dictatorial if given too much power. But it failed to present itself as a reliable opposition force that can properly check the ruling bloc and provide alternative policy directions. Instead, it just focused on diminishing the peace mood created by the Moon administration ― a tactic that has backfired.

"The local elections were an evaluation of the LKP, not the Moon administration," political analyst Choi Yo-han said. "The main opposition party kept criticizing everything about the government's North Korea policy even in the reconciliatory atmosphere. That angered voters."

Hong may have to step down from the chairmanship to take responsibility for the poor election outcome. Even before the elections, he faced protests from his own party members for unilateral decision-making and offensive language.

The LKP's internal dispute could lead to a split and the whole conservative bloc may be realigned through mergers. Some predict the LKP may merge with the Bareunmirae Party, which includes former members of the former Saenuri Party, the predecessor of the LKP.