Abuse of power has become the norm in Moon’s South Korea

And Koreans are taking notice.

Moon South Korea AP Photo
The decline in the public's support for President Moon is a clear warning that he risks becoming a lame duck in the fourth year of his five-year presidency, writes Kim [AP Photo/Lee Jin-man]

Just four months after winning the April 15 general election by a landslide, and securing 176 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his governing Democratic Party (DP) are faced with an alarming change in public sentiment.

Last month, for the first time since the 2016 political scandal that led to President Park Geun-hye’s removal from office, the approval rating of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP, formerly known as United Future Party) surpassed that of the DP. In an August 13 Realmeter poll, 36.5 percent of the respondents expressed support for the PPP, compared with just 33.4 percent for the DP. Public support for President Moon also plummeted in recent weeks, with an August 14 Gallup Korea survey putting his personal approval rating at 39 percent – his lowest since October 2019, when his close ally Justice Minister Cho Kuk was forced to step down amid corruption allegations

This drastic decline in public support for the president and the government illustrates not only the volatile nature of South Korea’s democracy, but also the growing backlash against their attempts to make abuse of power the new norm in the country. 

Indeed, since their stunning election victory in April, President Moon and his party have repeatedly undermined the rule of law, ignored the procedures put in place to ensure the separation of powers, and made controversial moves to further their populist agenda and help their allies escape accountability.

After winning the election with a margin unprecedented in South Korea’s democratic history, which enabled it to dominate all 17 standing committees of Parliament, the DP transformed the National Assembly into its own law-passing agency. It rammed through numerous contentious laws, without subcommittee review or any other consultative procedure required under the National Assembly Act. 

The governing party also railroaded a series of housing laws in an attempt to stabilise skyrocketing real estate prices in the Seoul metropolitan area, where half of the country’s population lives. The measures not only failed to bring the housing market under control, but also drew public anger, as they created more hurdles for middle-class first-time-buyers under the age of 40 – the main support group for the government. In July, as real estate prices in the country continued to rise, the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, an influential Seoul-based civic group, revealed that 42 governing party legislators elected in the April 15 parliamentary elections owned two or more houses, and made a considerable profit as a result of the soaring real estate prices. The revelation caused many to question the sincerity of the government’s pledge to resolve the housing crisis, and added weight to the accusations that President Moon and his party are using their dominance over the legislature to further their populist agenda and personal interests. 

Since the election, the DP government also made several moves to bring the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) fully under its control.

President Moon had appointed Yoon Seok-youl as head of the SPO in July 2019 because of his proven record of going after the most powerful without hesitation. However, ever since taking office as prosecutor general, Yoon has become Moon’s “biggest headache” and rocked the government several times by relentlessly investigating allegations of abuse of power directed at the president’s top aides and high-level government officials. Yoon’s determination to get to the bottom of these allegations even led to him being seen as a potential future president.

In response, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae embarked on a relentless campaign to isolate and silence Prosecutor General Yoon under the guise of “prosecution reform”. She assigned pro-government prosecutors to key posts while demoting those close to Yoon, who have been investigating the Cho Kuk scandal, and the government’s other alleged abuses of power, including the allegation that 13 Blue House top-aides and other high level officials unlawfully intervened in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election to get Moon’s 30-year-old friend, Song Cheol-ho, elected. 

Choo’s reshuffle and recently unveiled plan to reorganise the SPO led to a backlash, however, with many prosecutors, both at the senior and junior levels, publicly criticising her plan as solely aimed at reducing Yoon’s authority. The public also seems to be concerned about the direction the DP government’s prosecution reforms appear to be taking. According to the third National Indicator Survey jointly conducted by four polling companies, only 32 percent of the population thinks the reform drive is “doing well”, while 52 percent believes it is now aimed solely at “taming the prosecution”. 

The government’s attempts to shield its members and supporters from being held accountable for alleged abuses of power are not limited to bringing the SPO under control either. President Moon and the DP’s silence on and apparent unwillingness to get to the bottom of the sexual harassment allegations directed at powerful heads of local government, including the highly influential Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, is yet another example of their desire to make abuse of power and impunity the new norm in South Korea. 

In light of all this, it is hardly surprising that Koreans are starting to turn their backs on Moon and his party who were elected on a promise to end corruption and abuse of power – ills that have beset Korean governments since the country’s successful transition towards democracy in 1987. 

The alarming decline in the public’s support for Moon and the DP is a clear warning that Moon risks becoming a lame duck in the fourth year of his five-year presidency and in the lead-up to the April 2021 by-elections and the 2022 presidential election.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.