President Moon Jae-in's Democratic Party was headed for its worst defeat in five years in mayoral elections in South Korea's two biggest cities, a troubling sign for his progressive bloc just 11 months ahead of a presidential vote.
Exit polling released after the close of voting Wednesday showed conservative Oh Se-hoon, on pace to win in the race in Seoul over ruling party candidate Park Young-sun, a former minister for startups. He led an exit poll with 59% to Park's 37%, national broadcaster KBS said. In Busan, Park Hyung-jun of the conservative People Power Party was also well ahead of Kim Young-choon from Moon's ruling party, KBS said the poll showed.
Final results were not expected until early Thursday but a key issue in the race was anger over housing prices in big cities that have soared under Moon.
Losses in the cities that account for about a quarter of South Korea's population could slam the brakes on Moon's agenda to increase public employment and a push for larger fiscal spending. It would also serve as warning to his Democratic Party that it needs to revamp its policies if it wants to keep the presidency when Moon's single, five-year term ends in 2022.
If the polling numbers hold up, it would mean a stunning reversal for Moon and his allies. They won a supermajority in parliamentary elections about a year ago, riding a wave of public support for their management of the coronavirus crisis. Moon's party has scored a series of victories in the wake of the 2016 impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, a conservative leader later convicted of corruption.
Amid the anger over housing and stumbles in virus management, Moon's support rate hit a new low last week, following allegations employees of a state-run land corporation used insider information to make money for themselves from housing developments in Seoul. The scandal was the latest in a series of questionable land deals that have dogged the Moon presidency.
Oh, backed by the PPP, has been hammering Moon's government for tightening regulations on redevelopment and limiting the number of building permits over the years, saying the attempt to rein in gains by private constructors have backfired.
Oh resigned as Seoul mayor in 2011 having lost a fight to curb free student lunches in the capital to reduce public spending, stoking criticism of being tight-fisted. A return to power could signal public sentiment has soured toward Moon's economic policies that prioritize wealth redistribution and fiscal aid.
Moon pledged to make housing more affordable when he was elected in 2017, but apartment prices in Seoul have doubled in the last five years, while South Korean salaries have risen less than 20%, leaving housing in the capital out of reach for many people and some of it in the hands of a speculative few.