Park Geun-hye: Deeply Unpopular, Just Like All the Rest

By | October 28, 2016 | No Comments

It has become common practice in the last 24 hours to write about President Park Geun-hye’s plunging popularity. The evidence comes from an opinion poll conducted by Gallup Korea, which shows Park had an approval rating of 17 percent on October 27, 2016.1)The poll is an automated poll conducted by cellphone on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of each week with a sample of around 1,000 people per day. The response rate is low at just 21 percent. Even in her home region, cable broadcaster JTBC records, Park’s approval rating is currently down in the 20s:

Lines show percentage of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province residents who approve (blue line, 27 percent) of President Park. | Image: JTBC capture

A JTBC screen capture. The lines show percentage of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province residents who approve (blue line, 27 percent) or not (red line, 63 percent) of President Park’s performance. | Image: Sino-NK

That Park is unpopular is, of course, not in itself open to question. The rapidly unfolding saga of her links to a women named Choe Sun-sil serves only to make the incumbent president look nothing less than dreadful, and certainly un-presidential. No major political or media organization is calling for her to resign, yet, but there is seemingly consensus among editorial writers that she ought to step back from domestic politics for the remainder of her term in office, which continues until January 2018.

However, the polling numbers do not constitute evidence that Park has attained a level of unprecedented unpopularity, for the simple reason that unpopularity is par for the course. The same Gallup Korea poll that had Park at 17 percent on the 27th also gives historic polling data that shows not daily but quarterly approval ratings for the six democratically elected Republic of Korea presidents to date.

At the end of the third quarter of 2016, before the current scandal broke, the data record that Park’s approval rating was 32 percent, worse than Lee Myung-bak (37 percent) and Kim Young-sam (34 percent) at the same moment in their terms, but comparable to Kim Dae-jung (28 percent) and better than Roh Moo-hyun (16 percent).2)Data is absent for Roh Tae-woo, but at the end of the fourth quarter of his fourth year Roh was at 15 percent.

When the fourth quarter results are tallied at the end of December this year, it is therefore unlikely that Park will have contrived to plumb the same depths as Kim Young-sam, whose approval rating was just six percent by the end of his fifth year in office. Given that Park’s approval rating was above 30 percent as recently as the first week of October, it is also open to question whether there is sufficient time left for her to attain the sheer unpopularity of Roh Moo-hyun at the end of his fourth year, at 12 percent.

There is nothing particularly unusual about presidential approval ratings declining over the course of a term. It happens in many democracies, as the idealism of early years meets the grimy reality of modern democratic politics. It is, however, notable that of the five presidents prior to Park Geun-hye, four have ended up leaving or being kicked out of their respective political parties. Only Lee Myung-bak reached the end of his term with his party affiliation intact, and it was at the end of his fourth year, with his popularity in decline, that Lee paid his controversial visit to Dokdo. It is not clear what Park Geun-hye can do to rescue hers.

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1. The poll is an automated poll conducted by cellphone on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of each week with a sample of around 1,000 people per day. The response rate is low at just 21 percent.
2. Data is absent for Roh Tae-woo, but at the end of the fourth quarter of his fourth year Roh was at 15 percent.