By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - Roiled by property scandals and economic failures, South Korea's liberal ruling party looks set to lose the mayoral offices in the two largest cities, making it harder for President Moon Jae-in to achieve the policy goals of his last year in office.
Tens of millions of South Koreans will begin early voting on Friday to elect mayors of the capital Seoul and the port city of Busan among other local offices up for grab in the April 7 election.
The vote comes as Moon and his progressive Democratic Party grapple with plunging approval ratings over runaway home prices, deepening inequality and souring ties with North Korea, which could presage a broader political shift ahead of a presidential election in March.
Latest polls predicted a landslide victory by the main opposition People Power Party in both Seoul and Busan. That would mean the ruling party will lose control over the government of the capital, home to nearly 20% of the country's 52 million population, for the first time in a decade.
A Realmeter survey released on Thursday showed voters in all age groups supported the opposition, with double digit leads among respondents in their 20s, 30s and 60s or older.
"If Moon's party loses, it would be a crushing defeat that would bring a political brain death for him and eliminate any momentum to push ahead with his policy agenda," said Kim Hyung-joon, a political scientist at Myongji University in Seoul.
"It doesn't necessarily mean the opposition candidate will be the next president, but a new political force could emerge even within the ruling camp to keep Moon's group in check and try to differentiate from it."
Moon came to power in 2017, promising to generate jobs and create a level playing field for all Koreans where hardworking people can afford a home and raise a family.
But anger at the perceived failures of his economic policies has wiped out earlier surges in Moon's approval ratings driven by the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, dragging down the numbers to all-time lows in recent weeks.
The median home price has soared more than 50% in Seoul since 2017, the fastest pace in the world, according to statistics site Numbeo, despite some 25 rounds of cooling measures.
An ongoing investigation into accusations of insider land trading involving employees at a state housing developer, politicians and other officials has added fuel to the public uproar.
Moon has also touted progress in inter-Korean relations as his major feat, but North Korea only continues to vent degrading criticism at him while refusing to restart denuclearisation talks with South Korea and the United States.
Among the key drivers of the momentum for the opposition are the young generations and politically neutral voters who are disillusioned with Moon.
A 30-year-old Seoul resident, who only gave her surname Hwang, said she considers herself as liberal but is frustrated with Moon's economic policies.
"I have a decent job, my husband is a lawyer and we've got financial support from our parents, but having our own home is still an elusive dream," she told Reuters. "If a family like ours can't buy a home, who can?"
Hwang also criticised the ruling party's handling of sexual abuse scandals engulfing several of its high-profile members.
Former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was found dead last July amid accusations that he had sexually harassed his secretary, while former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don resigned in April after admitting to having made undesirable physical contact with an aide.
Moon said this week he took the public furore seriously, ordering full investigations and measures to stamp out any irregularities in the real estate sector.
"People's anger is turning toward more fundamental problems, including massive unearned incomes, widening inequality, fading dreams of having their own home and a new class society based on property ownerships," he said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)