SEOUL -- South Korean opposition parties united behind former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon on Tuesday for the April 7 mayoral election in the capital, turning the race into a two-way battle that could signal a rightward shift in the country's political landscape.
South Korea's conservatives have struggled electorally since progressive Moon Jae-in won the presidency in 2017, but they hope a victory in Seoul provides momentum toward regaining the Blue House in next year's election. Moon and the ruling Democratic Party are hemorrhaging support due to a land speculation scandal and other setbacks.
Oh, representing the conservative main opposition People Power Party, told reporters Tuesday that he will lead the way to bring judgment on Moon's "incompetent and immoral" administration.
Park Young-sun, the Democratic candidate and a former minister for small and midsize enterprises, called Oh an "old-fashioned and failed mayor." Oh resigned as mayor in 2011 after a referendum on free school lunches was invalidated due to low turnout.
Oh and Park are running to replace former Mayor Park Won-soon, who died in an apparent suicide amid a sexual harassment scandal involving his secretary. The winner serves the rest of Park Won-soon's term, which ends in June 2022. Full-fledged campaigning starts Thursday.
Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party also threw his hat into the ring, but will withdraw from the race after the opposition parties agreed to present a united front. Ahn told reporters he will do everything he can to secure a victory for the opposition.
Oh leads Park Young-sun by more than 10 percentage points in opinion polls as the backlash over the ruling party's property speculation scandal grows. Employees from the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corp. and the president's office are suspected of buying land before new development projects in the areas were announced, and over 300 government workers are under investigation.
The scandal, combined with dissatisfaction over Moon's response to surging property prices in greater Seoul, has dealt a heavy blow to the administration. Moon's approval rating fell to its lowest ever at 34% in a Realmeter poll published Monday, while his disapproval rate rose to its highest at 62%. Support for the Democrats also dropped to its lowest under Moon's administration at 28%, slipping further below the People Power Party's 35%.
Busan, another major metropolitan area, also elects a new mayor on April 7. Both races are shaping up as a one-on-one battle between the progressive and conservative candidates, and Moon risks becoming a lame duck should the Democrats lose the two votes.
The Seoul race in particular is considered a barometer for the next presidential election in March 2022. A win by Oh would energize South Korea's opposition, which suffered crushing defeats in both regional and general elections during Moon's presidency. Meanwhile, the ruling party could face increased infighting over which candidate has the best chance to defeat a conservative rival.
South Korea's conservative and centrist factions are considering rallying behind Yoon Seok-youl, who stepped down as prosecutor general after clashing with the Moon administration over prosecutorial reforms. Though Yoon has never explicitly expressed interest in running for office, he was the top pick to become South Korea's next president in recent opinion polls, drawing more support than progressive figures like Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung.