Breaking News Analysis: Conservatives Sweep the Seoul-Busan By-Elections

For the first time in five years, the conservative People Power Party won a major election as they swept the mayoral by-elections of South Korea's two largest cities.

Breaking News Analysis: Conservatives Sweep the Seoul-Busan By-Elections

Image: People Power Party's candidates for Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections, who are expected to win.  Credit: Website of the People Power Party.

For the first time in five years, the conservative People Power Party 국민의힘 won a major election as they swept the mayoral by-elections of South Korea's two largest cities. Here is what happened and what this may mean for the presidential election of 2022.


  • Exit polls show the People Power Party candidates winning in both by-elections by a convincing margin.  Although the votes are currently being counted, there is little reason to doubt the result because the exit polls, conducted jointly by KBS, MBC and SBS, are not particularly close, and consistent with the most recent polling data. In Seoul 서울, PPP's O Se-hun 오세훈 is leading the Democratic Party 민주당's Park Yeong-seon 박영선, 59.0% to 37.7%. In Busan 부산, PPP's Park Hyeong-jun 박형준 is leading the Democrat Kim Yeong-chun 김영춘, 64.0% to 33.0%. Should O and Park prevail in the end, they will serve until the next Local Elections 지방선거, to be held on June 1, 2022. The final turnout was 58.2% in Seoul and 52.7% in Busan - lower than the 2018 Local Elections but high for a by-election, showing a significant public focus on this election.

  • In Seoul, real estate issue proved to be the decisive factor. The PPP was always favored in Busan, but the conservative came from behind to win Seoul. As recently as mid-February, the Democratic Party 민주당’s Park Yeong-seon 박영선 leading the polls, appearing to be on her way toward becoming Seoul’s first woman mayor. (See previous coverage, “Park Yeong-seon Leading.”) But the soaring real estate price has been a consistent Achilles' Heel for the liberals (see previous coverage, “It’s the Real Estate, Stupid”), and the LH Scandal that broke in early March dramatically altered the political landscape, torpedoing the popularity of the Democratic Party. (See previous coverage, “LH Scandal Upends Race.”)

Image: Exit poll broken down by age and gender. Note the large gender gap in the top line showing voters in their 20s and younger.  Credit:  KBS 2.

  • Exit polls show that young men are rapidly turning conservative.  This election is the first real-world manifestation of the trend that has been appearing in the opinion polls for the past few years: young men of South Korea - particularly those in the 20s, and to a lesser degree in their 30s - are making a sharp conservative turn. According to the exit polls, 72.5% of male voters who are in their 20s and younger voted for the conservative candidate - higher even than the male voters who are in their 60s and older. In contrast, 44% of the female voters who are in their 20s and younger voted for the liberal candidate, one of only two demographics that favored Park Yeong-seon over O Se-hun. No other age group shows this level of gender gap, indicating a particularly toxic brand of sexism among South Korea's young men.

  • Gender issue was not a significant factor.  Because the by-elections occurred as a result of the previous Seoul and Busan mayors leaving their office as a result of sexual harassment scandal, many - including TBR - expected the sexism and misogyny would emerge as a significant issue. They did not: the likely winner O Se-hun defeated a major woman candidate Na Gyeong-won 나경원 in the primaries (see previous coverage), and is now on his way to defeating another woman candidate in Park Yeong-seon in the main election. Even during the campaign, the gender issue never rose to prominence as most of the campaign for both parties revolved around the real estate issue. Although some claimed that the sexual harassment scandals were turning off the women voters, the exit polls showed that women voters in their 20s voted liberal at nearly double the rate as their male counterparts.


  • Winner:  O Se-hun 오세훈. Obviously O is a winner, but what a win. After ignominiously leaving the Seoul mayoral office in 2011 following a defeat in the popular referendum, O's political career was written off. His attempts to come back for the past decade were marred by repeated losses of huge polling leads. (See previous coverage, "Can O Se-hun Hold?") This time, O Se-hun ripped off a series of impressive victories over major heavyweights like Na Gyeong-won, Ahn Cheol-su 안철수 and Park Yeong-seon on his way to the City Hall. As the first major victor for the PPP in five years, O Se-hun will become the center of gravity for the conservatives as the presidential election approaches.

  • Winner:  Kim Jong-in 김종인, the leader of the People Power Party. For the past several years, Kim has been endeavoring to push the PPP toward centrism and away from the toxic far-right politics of the impeached president Park Geun-hye 박근혜. (See Kim's profile, "The Most Interesting Man in Politics.") The "dog that didn't bark" in this election was the flag-waving far-right groups supporting Park, which had a muted presence. Kim has been pushing to marginalize that group, and in this election he succeeded. After Park's impeachment, the conservatives appeared to be at the brink of an annihilation, but Kim Jong-in steered them to regain their footing with this victory.

  • Loser:  Former Supreme Prosecutor Yun Seok-yeol 윤석열 전 검찰총장, who had been the leading conservative presidential candidate in the polls for the past several months. The popularity of Yun - who was a high-ranking official within the liberal Moon Jae-in 문재인 administration - was in large part because the main conservative opposition could not present a viable alternative. Previously, Yun was exploring the possibility of starting a third party, and attempting a hostile takeover of the PPP. (See previous coverage, "Presidential Election Viewer's Guide.") But now with the PPP beginning to recover strength, Yun is more likely to be pushed into joining the main conservative party, where the old hands of the party still hold most of the levers of the party machine.

  • Loser:  Lee Nak-yeon 이낙연, former Prime Minister and the leader of the Democratic Party. As recently as a year ago, Lee was a commanding favorite for the next presidency, until the ill-advised proposal to pardon the imprisoned conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak 이명박 and Park Geun-hye 박근혜 cratered his popularity. (See previous coverage, "Beg Your Pardon?") Whatever remaining support that Lee Nak-yeon had is bound to take a hit as a result of this election.

  • Winner:  Gyeonggi-do Province Governor Lee Jae-myung 이재명 경기도지사 and the leading the liberal candidate for the next presidency. Historically in South Korean politics, even when the same party retained the Blue House 청와대, the second president tends to come from a different faction within the party from the first president, as every president suffered a brutal lame-duck period. President Moon Jae-in 문재인 had the best chance to break this trend, as he is the most popular president in South Korea's democratic history. (See previous coverage, "Every President Over Five Years.") But the by-elections loss reinforces the existing trend: the pro-Moon faction within the Democratic Party will become weaker, removing the biggest potential intra-party obstacle for the governor. (See previous coverage, "The Third Option.")

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