SEOUL -- President Moon Jae-in's ruling party suffered crushing defeats Wednesday in mayoral elections for South Korea's two largest cities -- a huge reversal from a midterm landslide 12 months ago, which leaves him facing his final year as a lame duck.
Voters appear to have become disillusioned with Moon and his liberal Democratic Party over a series of corruption scandals, unpopular housing policies and a stuttering economy. The victories for the conservative camp in Seoul and Busan put the opposition People Power Party in the box seat for next March's presidential election.
Oh Se-hoon of the People Power Party will return as Seoul mayor, having resigned from the post in 2011 after facing opposition to his plan to stop free school meals. Oh gained 57.5% of the vote in the capital, beating the DP's Park Young-sun, who took 39.2%.
"Seoul citizens gave me a chance like a thousand pieces of gold," Oh said early Thursday. "I will become a cornerstone for making Seoul run again as it is the heart of the Republic of Korea."
In Busan, the PPP's Park Hyung-joon won with 62.7% of the vote, defeating the DP's Kim Young-choon, who took 34.4%. Moon and the DP sought to back Kim by pledging to build a new international airport in the southeastern port city, but the plan was not popular among voters.
"I hope this will give momentum to change national politics," Park said late Wednesday.
The wins represent the first major electoral success for the conservatives in eight years. It appears that they have shed the toxic legacy of former President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and later convicted on charges including abuse of power, bribery and coercion.
The PPP's sweep of the two mayoral elections turns the nation's focus to who will become the next president. With liberal candidates for the nation's leader trailing in opinion polls, the DP faces a struggle to turn things around with the presidential vote just 11 months away.
Moon's approval rating fell last week to 32%, his lowest since taking office in 2017. Support for the DP also fell to its lowest level in five years.
Park Sung-min, head of Min Consulting, a political consulting firm, told Nikkei Asia that the outcome will accelerate Moon's lame duck status.
"For the DP the results signal that the next president may not come from the party," Park said. "For the PPP, the wins do not necessarily mean people support their change and innovation. It is more like punishment of the Moon government."
Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl was the favorite candidate with 46.4% of support in a poll conducted by Hangil Research two weeks ago, despite not having officially announced his intention to run. Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung of the DP was the second runner with 17.4%, followed by DP leader Lee Nak-yon with 9.9%.
Yoon resigned from the top prosecutor's job last month, after clashing with Moon and the DP over their plans to reform the prosecutorial system.
Several factors are behind the defeat for Moon's party.
Housing prices in Seoul, Busan and other cities have jumped sharply over the past year, partly due to three new laws regulating the housing market and landlords. The jobless rate -- particularly among young people -- continues to rise.
The public is unhappy over a scandal involving employees of Korea Land and Housing Corp., a state housing developer, who are suspected of committing land speculation in new cities using insider information. Separately, close aides of Moon have been mired in graft scandals and influence-peddling cases in college admissions over the last few years.
Young voters, in particular, turned against the DP. They expressed their disappointment with the president and the governing party, calling them hypocrites despite their political slogans of fairness and justice.
The election winners will serve a one-year term after their predecessors left office early. Former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon of the DP died by suicide in July last year after his female secretary filed a sexual violence complaint against him. Former Busan mayor Oh Keo-don of the DP also resigned in April last year after a female official in the city claimed he groped her.
"I think these mayoral by-elections are meaningful in many ways. It is a punishment on Park Won-soon's sexual violence as well as evaluation on the last four years under the Moon Jae-in government," said PPP's interim chairman Kim Chong-in in a polling place in central Seoul.