SEOUL, April 4 — Fed up with South Korea’s government and seeing little hope in the opposition, Cho Young-moon says she’ll cast a protest vote in next week’s elections — for a month-old party led by a disgraced politician facing jail.

Cho, a 48-year-old dentist, is one of a growing number of South Koreans indicating they plan to vote for former justice minister Cho Kuk’s Rebuilding Korea party and its fiercely anti-government platform on April 10.

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s approval ratings have been stuck in the low 30 percent range for months, driven by a litany of scandals and voter dissatisfaction with rising inflation, a lagging economy and an ongoing doctors’ strike.

While Cho Kuk’s party is offering few substantive policies of its own, recent polling data shows it neck-and-neck with the ruling party, and analysts say its appeal to voter anger could see it win enough seats to play kingmaker in the next parliament.

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For Cho Kuk, however, the goal may be more simple — revenge.

Once a rising political star, Cho Kuk was tipped to run for president before an academic admissions scandal in 2019 engulfed his family.

Leading the investigation was now-President Yoon.

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Accused of forging documents to get his kids into university, Cho’s wife spent more than three years in jail, his daughter was forced to renounce her medical licence, and Cho himself is facing two years behind bars if the Supreme Court rejects his appeal.

Yoon’s prosecution of the scandal propelled him onto the national stage, and he went on to win the 2022 presidential election despite never having held elective office before.

But two years later, Cho’s story is now serving to amplify his anti-Yoon message among voters who polls show are increasingly disenchanted with both the president and his administration.

“I am going to make President Yoon first a lame duck, then a dead duck,” Cho told AFP.

‘Utter failure’

The fact that a party set up only weeks ago is polling so strongly highlights widespread dissatisfaction with both Yoon and the opposition Democratic Party, which currently controls parliament, experts say.

“What we are seeing with Cho’s party is the utter failure of the two major parties to respond to voters’ demands,” Yoo Jung-hoon, a political commentator, told AFP.

Yoon has notably not held an open press conference since August 2022.

Cho’s party was polling at nearly 30 per cent approval this week, meaning — if the numbers hold — he could end up with 15 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament.

Thanks to the country’s unique proportional representation system, 15 seats could be enough to form a coalition that prevents Yoon’s PPP from taking back control of parliament, which they have not had since 2016.

South Korea today entered its final week of campaigning, a period in which no new polling numbers will be released.

“Cho’s party is largely running on a single issue, that this election should be a stern referendum on Yoon — and it is winning so much support,” Yoo said.

President Yoon is constitutionally allowed only a single five-year term, and his party is desperate to win control of parliament so they can move on his socially conservative agenda.

But scandals, notably over First Lady Kim Keon-hee’s acceptance of a Dior bag — seen in a widely circulated video — and involvement in a stock manipulation scandal, have fueled public discontent with his administration.

Cho says prosecutors have been “lenient” with Yoon and his family, in sharp contrast with their pursuit of his own, which “endured harsh trials for years”.

He is calling for direct elections for prosecutors to put an end to what he calls political bias and credits his party’s support to discontent with the status quo.

“There is pent-up disappointment and anger at the government, but no parties or politicians to fully represent such sentiment,” he said.

‘Most damaged’

Cho’s personal story is helping galvanise voters unhappy with both major parties, political analyst Yum Seung-yul told AFP.

“He is seen as the most damaged” by Yoon, due to the aggressive prosecution his family faced, Yum said, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if the party were to win big in the polls.

But even if he does win, Cho may not keep his seat in parliament. If the Supreme Court rejects his final appeal, he will be jailed for two years.

There is no timeline for the ruling.

At a rally in central Seoul last week, hundreds of Cho’s supporters chanted his name and his party’s slogan — “Three years is too long!” — a reference to Yoon’s remaining term in office.

“People are angry with the government,” dentist Cho said at the rally. And many, like her, think the opposition’s claims it will do a better job addressing their concerns are “hollow”.

“Cho is different in that he has told us what he will actually do to keep Yoon in check.” — AFP