‘Lame duck’ South Korean president reels from election debacle

South Korean President Yoon faces a political crisis as opposition gains control, leading to resignations and gridlock.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol promised “reform” and the head of his ruling party resigned on Thursday after a disastrous election increased the opposition’s stranglehold on parliament.

In addition to People Power Party (PPP) leader Han Dong-hoon, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and a string of senior aides also offered to step down, local media said.

The result has turned Yoon into a lame duck president for the remaining three years in office — making him the first South Korean president whose party has not controlled the legislature at any point in their tenure.

It’s likely to lead to “extreme confrontation” and gridlock, said Shin Yul, professor of political science at Myongji University.

“It won’t be easy for people to see bipartisan cooperation,” he told AFP.

Yoon, 63, has taken a tough line with the nuclear-armed North while improving ties with Washington and former colonial occupier Japan.

ALSO READ: South Korea empowers nurses as doctors’ strike continues

But the former prosecutor is unloved among voters, with many angry at inequality, sky-high housing prices and youth unemployment in the nation of 51 million people.

The opposition also hammered Yoon after he called the price of green onions, a staple in Korean cooking, “reasonable” and a video of his wife accepting a $2,200 designer handbag was widely circulated.

“I will humbly honour the will of the people expressed in the general election, reform the state affairs, and do my best to stabilise the economy and people’s livelihood,” Yoon said, according to his chief of staff Lee Kwan-sup.

With all votes counted Thursday, results from the National Election Commission and major broadcasters showed Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) and its satellite sliding from 114 seats in parliament to just 108.

The big winners were Lee Jae-myung’s Democratic Party (DP) and its partner, which saw their seat tally rise to 175 from 156 in the outgoing legislature.

The newly-founded Rebuilding Korea party, led by former justice minister Cho Kuk, capitalised on discontent with the two main parties to pick up 12 seats.

ALSO READ: South Korean trainee doctors stop work to protest medical reforms

The landslide was, however, less emphatic than suggested by exit polls, with all opposition parties combined falling short of a super-majority of 200 seats in the 300-strong National Assembly.

Cho said Thursday one of his first orders of business would be to table legislation calling for a probe into the president’s wife, who has been repeatedly accused of malfeasance by opposition politicians.

“I say it once again: Summon (First Lady) Kim Keon Hee and conduct an investigation immediately. This is the final warning,” he said.

Lee’s glee

The result is sweet revenge for Lee, 60, who narrowly lost a presidential election to Yoon in 2022 and in January was stabbed in the neck while on the campaign trail.

“This isn’t the Democratic Party’s victory but a great victory for the people,” the former factory worker said Thursday morning.

Lee has won support for policies including cash handouts to young adults, free school uniforms and maternity care.

ALSO READ: Seoul slams Russia comments on North Korea

He may now have another shot at the top job.

But critics call the former human rights lawyer a populist and point to a string of corruption allegations hanging over him that he has dismissed as politically motivated.

“The challenges Lee and DP face currently lurk more in the long run than in the short run. The popular support the party is currently garnering anchors on the overall discontent with Yoon,” said Byunghwan Son, professor at George Mason University.

“It remains to be seen if the popular support can be sustained,” he told AFP.

Yoon’s gloom

Yoon had hoped the PPP would win a majority in parliament and push through his legislative agenda.

This includes planned healthcare reforms — that are backed by voters but have sparked a crippling strike by doctors — and a pledge to abolish the ministry of gender equality.

ALSO READ: North Korea fires more cruise missiles in testing spree

But the election results represent Yoon’s “biggest political crisis” since he took power, the conservative daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo said.

Even though the opposition missed out on a supermajority — two-thirds control of the parliament would have allowed them to try and impeach Yoon — the president remains in a precarious position.

If Yoon can’t find a way to work with the opposition, there is a “likelihood of impeachment, which some factions in the ruling party may comply with for the sake of their own political futures,” Chae Jin-won of Humanitas College at Kyung Hee University told AFP.

– By: © Agence France-Presse

Read more on these topics

politics South Korea vote