MOON JAE-IN, South Korea’s president, took advantage of his country’s early-voting system to cast an advance ballot in provincial and municipal elections. When the day of the vote came, on June 13th, he went for a hike. He ambled up Bugaksan mountain in shorts, hiking shoes and a short-sleeved check shirt, his dog Maru padding along obediently by his side.
Mr Moon’s relaxed air was entirely justified. A few hours later exit polls indicated that his left-leaning Minjoo Party had triumphed in elections that were widely seen as a verdict on his first year in office (he became president after a snap election in May 2017). The party won all but three of the country’s 17 races for mayor or governor—an unprecedented landslide. It also snagged 11 out of 12 seats in the National Assembly that had been up for grabs in by-elections, strengthening Mr Moon’s minority government, although it is still well short of a majority. At 60%, turnout was higher than at any time since the first properly democratic local elections were held in 1995, when 68% of the electorate went to the polls. According to one survey, Mr Moon’s approval rating, which had already been hovering in the mid-70s, hit 80% on the day of the vote.
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The result is especially striking because it suggests that Mr Moon is so popular that he can override the ingrained regional divide in South Korean politics. Busan and Ulsan, cities in the conservative south-east, elected mayors from Minjoo for the first time. The unrelenting parliamentary obstruction of Liberty Korea, the main opposition party, may have alienated some of its supporters. It has spent the past year torpedoing Mr Moon’s plans, most notably (and ironically) derailing legislation to curb the powers of the president. It also denounced Mr Moon’s policy of detente with North Korea, accusing him of being a communist sell-out. Hong Jun-pyo, the party’s chairman, stormed out of its post-election gathering on June 13th and later hinted at his resignation with a post on his Facebook page that read, “The buck stops here.”
It was especially unfortunate for the opposition that the vote came the day after Donald Trump, America’s president, met Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, for a summit in Singapore (see Briefing). Mr Moon played no small part in bringing the two sides together, and has himself met Mr Kim twice. These diplomatic overtures, in turn, have succeeded in dispelling the confrontational atmosphere on the peninsula, to the relief of many South Koreans.
Television networks covering the elections did their best to compete with the drama of the Trump-Kim summit. One station used a Harry Potter theme to illustrate the contest, depicting the candidates as wizards complete with cloaks and wands. Another portrayed them as Jedis and kitted them out with lightsabers to fight it out.
Minjoo’s resounding electoral success strengthens Mr Moon’s progressive mandate. In the National Assembly, left-wing parties and independents now hold more than half of the seats, which may allow him to push laws through. South Koreans are broadly supportive of his efforts to tame conglomerates, root out corruption and create a more equitable society by improving health care, pensions and labour conditions. But the mood could easily sour if talks with the North go wrong.