Seoul goes to the polls to vote on Moon presidency
by Guido Alberto Casanova

A new president will be elected on March 9. The outgoing president, who cannot be re-elected, had promised a fairer country with less power for large industrial groups, but his plan has remained unfinished. Democratic candidate Lee Jae-myung aims to continue along this path, focusing on minimum income and ecological transition, but it is not certain that South Korea will choose continuity.


Seoul (AsiaNews) - The Moon Jae-in will end its mandate after five years of extremely complex government with presidential elections on March 9th in South Korea. The democratic administration took office in 2017 after winning by a wide margin the first elections of the post-Park Geun-hye era. Expectations were very high for Moon, who was leading a country shaken by the corruption scandal involving former President Park, which also led to his subsequent deposition. The most important of Moon's promises was to make South Korea fairer and more just, and to combat abuses of power.

Five years later, despite great efforts, many of those promises remain unfulfilled. It must be acknowledged that the democrat administration has tried to take important steps on the road to so-called 'economic democratisation' in South Korea. First of all, the government lowered the maximum number of working hours each week from 68 to 52, raised taxes on the highest incomes and on companies with more than 0 million in profits, and between 2018 and 2019 raised the minimum wage by 16.9% and 10.9% respectively. Reform of the chaebols, the large industrial conglomerates (such as Samsung and Hyundai) that dominate the South Korean economy, was also put on the table and three bills collectively known as the fair economy bill were passed in 2020.

However, these measures have come under heavy criticism. On the one hand, the measures on the working week and minimum wage have effectively blocked hiring by small and medium-sized enterprises, which account for the majority of employees in the private sector and suffer from statically low productivity levels. Indeed, minimum wage increases have plummeted since 2020.  On the other hand, chaebol reform has been very restrained and to some extent shelved.

The Fair Economy Bill introduced new regulations on the internal functioning of conglomerates and required them to have at least one external auditor, but did not abolish the rule that only the Fair Trade Commission can investigate alleged violations of market competition laws. Moreover, the economic contraction due to the pandemic has made the economic weight of the chaebols even more politically relevant, to the extent that Moon has asked them for help in curbing youth unemployment. For some, this represents a reversal of his original intentions.

Moon had to overcome considerable internal resistance to go ahead with his proposed reform of the judiciary. The creation of a special body to investigate top state officials, including the president, has been fiercely debated for years and is one of the reasons that led former Attorney General Yoon Seok-youl to take the field to stop what he described as a breach of the rule of law. Other resistances, however, have prevailed: the law against fake news has stalled in parliament amid accusations of gagging the media, while the proposal for a law against discrimination was never even put on the table until a few weeks ago.

The crisis in the real estate sector is one of the issues that has most marked the last few years of the Moon presidency and will weigh most heavily on tomorrow's vote. Despite the limitations adopted, the democratic government has not succeeded in curbing the continuous rise in house prices, which have become prohibitive for many South Koreans. Democratic candidate Lee Jae-myung is proposing to tighten regulations to prevent property speculation and, at the same time, to increase the supply of homes by 2.5 million units.

Lee, despite his outsider status, would be the candidate who in some ways should take up and complete Moon's political vision. As a candidate of continuity in the pursuit of social justice, Lee has associated his name with the introduction of the minimum income. On the other hand, from an economic development perspective, the Democratic candidate intends to ride on the Democratic government's dirigiste momentum (which launched the Korean New Deal in 2020) to support the green and digital transition industries. But the question nagging at the Democratic camp at the moment is: how much continuity do voters want?