Park's popularity may affect local elections

SOUTH KOREA - President Park Geun-hye's high approval ratings are likely to create an advantageous environment for the ruling Saenuri Party ahead of the local elections in June for low-level administration chiefs and councilors.

"The possibility is likely that Park's high popularity would help the ruling party gain more votes in the local elections," said Yoon Hee-woong, Min Consulting's head of public opinion research.

"The approval rating shows that her work has been evaluated positively by more than her existing political supporters," he said.

According to Realmeter, Park's approval rating reached 63.1 per cent in a survey conducted between April 7-11, a 2.6 percentage point increase from a week before.

Other research institutes including Gallup Korea say her popularity rating has already passed the 60 per cent mark early this month. She is the first Korean president to enjoy such high support ratings in the second quarter of the second year in office, according to Gallup Korea.

Evaluations on her state management were largely positive for external relations and reform efforts. Her reform drive to "normalize abnormal practices" appears to have been well received, as demonstrated by poll numbers. The initiative announced during her New Year's speech in January is aimed at overhauling debt-ridden public corporations and stamping out corruption in society.

"Her diplomatic accomplishments earned through the Nuclear Security Summit and free trade pact with Australia helped the president receive positive evaluation," said Lee Taek-soo, head of Realmeter.

Park continued to get higher ratings for her handling of recent security threats such as North Korea's spy drones.

But critics say that her high popularity may be due to "the weakness of the opposition party."

"The absence of political opponent powerful enough to keep her work in check helped her gain a high score in her work evaluation," said Bae Jong-chan, senior researcher at Research and Research, in a recent radio interview.

Lee of Research and Research also agreed. "(Park's high approval rating) may have benefited from the opposition reneging on (its commitment to) abolish the nomination system," Lee said.

The main opposition party earlier called for the abolishment of the candidate nomination system as its core strategy for local elections. The party reversed the plan last week after conducting an intraparty vote and opinion polls.

According to Realmeter, the approval ratings of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy dropped 4.9 percentage points to 24 per cent after its announcement on the nomination system in the second week of April while the ruling Saenuri Party garnered 52.5 per cent of popularity, a 2.5 percentage point increase from the previous week.

The local election has been cited as the first mid-term confidence vote on the Park administration. But with Park enjoying high popularity, the upcoming local elections are less likely to help the opposition party have political leverage to attack the ruling party or the government.

"The local elections were supposed to help the opposition party raise questions and exercise political clout against the ruling party and government. But right now, the opposition is too weak to do so," Yoon said.