Will president’s popularity bode well for Saenuri?
According to the polling agency Gallup Korea, the lowest popularity rating for any president in Korea’s history was observed in the local elections on May 31, 2006, when Roh Moo-hyun had just 20.2 percent. At the time, the ruling Uri Party won in just one spot in North Jeolla out of the 16 mayoral and gubernatorial posts.
The main opposition Grand National Party (GNP), the former body of the Saenuri Party, won 12 seats, followed by the Democratic Party with two and one victory for an independent candidate.
The second-lowest approval rating for any president in history was in 2002 under the Kim Dae-jung administration, when the Democratic Party won only four of 16 posts in the June 13 local elections. The approval rating for President Kim then stood at 25.9 percent; he was in the last year of his five-year term.
But in Kim’s first year at the helm in 1998, the results of the June 4 local elections were exactly the opposite. His approval rating stood at 62.2 percent, the highest among all five local election periods in history. Two parties that jointly held the ruling party position won in 10 regional posts, compared to six by the main opposition party.
Local elections take place every four years, while presidential elections come around every five.
“Except for 1998, the remaining four local elections saw the opposition parties win,” said Huh Jin-jae, a director at Gallup Korea. “Those victories were solidified when the president wasn’t popular [at the time].”
Taking into account the statistics, the chances for the Saenuri in the upcoming June 4 local elections appear upbeat. A survey by the JoongAng Ilbo on Feb. 21-22 showed that President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating stood at 62.7 percent, and a different poll by Gallup Korea on Feb. 24-27 showed 57 percent. Both of those figures are higher than the 51.6 percent recorded in the presidential election in late 2012.
But with the polls still three months away and the list of candidates yet to be fixed, experts say it is difficult to predict the results, though the ruling party is anchoring its hopes on the president’s halo effect.
Analysts say Park’s high popularity rating was part of what prompted Yoo Jeong-bok, the minister of security and public administration, to run in the Incheon mayoral race and Saenuri senior lawmaker Nam Kyung-pil to declare his bid for the Gyeonggi gubernatorial election.
The two were initially hesitant about campaigning before Park’s popularity ascended, which was partially thanks to the realization of reunions for families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.
President Park’s comment on Tuesday that “politics, in a true sense, should begin with taking care of the livelihoods [of the people] and the economy” seems aimed at containing the new opposition party that is yet to be launched - the result of a merger on Sunday between the Democratic Party and the tentatively named New Political Vision Party, a faction led by independent lawmaker Ahn Cheol-soo.
On the back of her current popularity, Park may have assumed that it wasn’t a bad idea to remark on the upcoming polls. Still, Representative Ahn on Wednesday rebutted the president’s remarks.
“President Park mentioned ‘new politics,’ and what she said makes so much sense,” he said. “The digression of economic democratization, not fulfilling her promises on welfare, and government agencies’ intervention in the [2012 presidential campaign] have nothing to do with citizens’ livelihoods.
Whose livelihood does it affect if she picks an incumbent minister and a senior lawmaker to have them run in the elections?” Ahn added, referring to the announcements by Minister Yoo and Representative Nam.
But so far, the ruling party has refused to budge.
“The opposition’s defeat, which was seen in the  presidential election, is not so bad for the ruling party,” Saenuri Representative Seo Young-kyo said.
BY HUH JIN, SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]