South Korea: How Does Moon Jae-in’s Presidency Affect the Election

South Korea: How Does Moon Jae-in’s Presidency Affect the Election
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What you need to know

The results of a pre-election survey suggest that growing backlash to Covid-19 policies led to declining support for Moon, perhaps indirectly affecting perceptions of the losing candidate, Lee Jae-myung.

On March 9, South Korea elected Yoon Suk-yeol as its new president, but how did perceptions of the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, influence this election? A multitude of candidate-specific issues arose during the campaign, including corruption. But the election can also be seen as an evaluation of Moon’s five-year presidency. 

In 2015, Moon won on the promise that he could move South Korea from the corruption scandals of his predecessor, the impeached and imprisoned Park Geun-Hye. But his later decision to pardon Park in 2021 also seemed consistent with past presidents wanting to signal national reconciliation. 

In office, Moon worked towards goals that are on the progressive side of the spectrum in Korean politics, including gender equality and improving relations with North Korea, which didn’t improve despite three inter-Korea summits. And like Park, his administration faced a series of corruption scandals and a broad backlash to gender equality efforts and anything associated with feminism has led to anti-feminist messages from both of the main candidates in March’s election.

During the pandemic, Moon’s administration received international praise for its handling of the virus, though surveys showed the public divided on party lines in the lead-up to National Assembly elections. Support grew after the election, with evidence that those supportive of Covid policies were more likely to evaluate Moon’s presidency higher in general. Yet as cases increase in 2021-2022 (over 100,000 cases each day), support for Moon declines.

To identify Moon’s support near the end of his term, I surveyed 945 South Koreans from February 18-22 via Macromill Embrain, using age, gender, and regional quota sampling. I asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Moon Jae-in is handling his job as President?”

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Overall, only 26.56% of respondents expressed approval of Moon’s performance, while 43.92% disapproved. Among supporters of Moon’s Democratic Party (DP), support remained relatively high (57.9%), while clear majorities of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) and center-right People Party (PP) disapproved (84.51% and 60% respectively). 

Surprisingly, a plurality of the supporters of the progressive Justice Party (JP) chose to neither disapprove or approve (37.93%). Regression analysis controlling for gender, age, education, and income find evaluations to be largely motivated by party identification and ideology.

In addition, the pardon of former president Park Geun-Hye seems to have contributed to a further decline in approval. Those opposed to the pardon were evenly split in perceptions of Moon (33.57% dislike, 34.27% neutral, 32.17% like), while a majority of those who support the pardon stated they disliked Moon (52.51% vs. 25.58% neutral and 21.9% like). Similarly, regressions find that controlling for demographic and partisan factors, those supportive of the pardon were less likely to evaluate Moon favorably.

Based on the assumption that Moon’s approval rating would be influenced by changing perceptions of Covid-19 response, I also asked the following, “I am satisfied with the South Korean government's response to the coronavirus outbreak.” The result is that those dissatisfied with the Covid-19 response disapprove of Moon’s performance the most (75.93%). 60.36% of those satisfied with the response also viewed Moon’s performance favorably. Regression analysis further shows that support for Covid-19 policies as the strongest positive correlation with evaluations, with a larger effect than supporting Moon’s party.

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To sum up, the results suggest that growing backlash to Covid-19 policies led to declining support for Moon. But it’s not unusual for a president to see their approval rating decline after taking office. It's relatively easy to campaign on policy reforms, but often far more difficult to enact them or to predict pitfalls or backlash. Similarly, the public learns more about the president while in office, simply due to the 24-hour news cycle and tendency to focus on challenges and failures over successes. Another drag on the incumbent’s popularity is the presence of multiple candidates for office with sizable support. Even though Moon’s approval rates were declining in December of 2021, his approval rates were similar to the percentage of the vote he received in 2017 against a multi-candidate field.

Does Moon’s declining support have to do with the failure of his party’s presidential candidate, Lee Jae-myung, to win the election? The data shows that 74.69% of respondents dissatisfied with South Korea’s Covid-19 response disliked Lee compared to 8.44% who liked him. 50.29% of respondents satisfied with the response liked Lee compared to 25.15% who disliked him. 

But the results may just be picking up partisan evaluations. Regression analysis finds that support for Covid-19 policies, approval of Moon, and support for his party all positively correspond to likeability of Lee. In other words, all three have statistically significant and separate influences on perceptions of Lee, with the largest influence being party identification. As South Koreans grew dissatisfied with Covid policies and Moon’s performance, perceptions of Lee could be indirectly affected.

Moon’s presidential legacy will evolve over time, and the president-elect will likely face many of the same challenges, from responding to rising Covid cases to endemic corruption in South Korean politics.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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