Despite the coronavirus pandemic, South Korea will hold elections for the National Assembly on 15 April, merely two months after a sixty-one-year-old Korean woman known as “Patient 31” tested positive for the virus in the city of Daegu, South Korea’s epicenter of coronavirus cases, and triggered off the rapid transmission of the virus in the rest of country. Since then, Moon Jae-in’s response to the crisis, through measures that fruitfully strike the balance between security and privacy without invoking the anxiety of lockdown, has been acclaimed at home and abroad as decisive and sophisticated. How these public health achievements will translate into political outcomes at the upcoming electoral verdict is attracting international attention.
According to a public opinion survey Seoul National University conducted in the last week of March, seven out of ten South Koreans believed that the government’s response to COVID-19 was effective, up from a 42% preference in the previous month. Moreover, eight stated that the outbreak is now serious (77%, down 14 points) and only two argued that they were likely to be infected (16%, down 12 points). The survey shows that in the last thirty days South Koreans perceived the government as more dependable, the epidemic less serious, and the region less dangerous.
Such encouraging results were achieved at a time when citizens also rated well the public health agencies responsible for containing the epidemic. Indeed, 87% of interviewees (up 11 points from the previous survey) stated they trust the “Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention” (KCDC), 81% (up 7 points) the “National Medical Center”, and 72% (up 14 points) the “Ministry of Health and Welfare” (MHW). In sum, the survey shows that South Korean confidence in national public health institutions reflected positively on the government, which looks more competent.
Several analysts at home and abroad agree that the surge of public support for the government was mainly due to the systematic actions that were taken to control the outbreak as quickly, comprehensively, collaboratively and transparently as possible.
For starters, public health agencies set up a testing protocol two weeks after the first case was confirmed, and are now able to perform 100,000 tests per day. Second, public health authorities had been able to test more than 5,000 people per million citizens by 15 March (while the United States did less than 80 tests per million), completing a total of about 420,000 tests as of 1 April.
Third, by detecting positive cases, national public health workers have been able to retrace the movements of patients, isolate the infected, and disseminate real-time information to the public in collaboration with provincial and local authorities.
Last, but not least, as the main authorities for public health at the national level, the MHW and, to a lesser extent, the KCDC, successfully coordinated inter-agency work, and guaranteed cooperation from the general public through television broadcasts, public transportation announcements and smartphone alerts, which reminded citizens of social distancing requirements.
It is no surprise that President Moon’s approval ratings heightened, as they reflected the positive results of the coordinated efforts of the government and the voluntary support of citizens. According to a Gallup Korea pollconducted at the end of March, 56% of South Koreans evaluated the president’s performance positively, 13 points higher than in that conducted in the last week of February. Indeed, Moon has recovered from the lower scores he obtained after the inter-Korean summit in 2018. 58% of those who answered positively indicated that the president’s response to COVID-19 was the best work he ever did, up 18 points since the February polls. Among those who had a negative perception of Moon’s handling of the crisis, 33% considered it the worst the president ever did, down 8 points from February.
These results show that the coronavirus crisis has overtaken other traditional issues, such as income-led economic growth policy or inter-Korean reconciliation diplomacy.
It is still uncertain how the president’s party will do in the coming general election. The same polls, in fact, show that Moon’s opposition (United Future Party) increased support rates to 23%, up 2 points since the end of February. Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea, in contrast, scored 41% in approval rates, 4 points up.
Amongst the 300 seats up for grabs, 253 will be contested by a single-member-district-plurality where local factors will be more relevant than national trends, and 47 seats will be assigned through a complicated proportional representation principle in which multi-party proliferation tends to overwhelm two-party consolidation.
If the governing party wins the election, the short-term responsiveness of the government will have proven successful, and washed away its economic and foreign policy mistakes. Conversely, if the governing party loses, the short-term responsiveness of the government will have proven not to be sufficient to make up for the economic and foreign policy mistakes. Whatever the outcome, trade-offs between accountability and responsiveness will remain at the core of electoral debates.