(News Analysis) Local elections prove harsh test for Lee

  • Published : Jun 3, 2010 - 00:50
  • Updated : Jun 3, 2010 - 00:50

Wednesday’s elections turned out to be an unexpectedly tight race between President Lee Myung-bak’s party and its liberal rival, signaling a setback in the conservative government’s drive to toughen defense against North Korea and finish off its growth-focused projects.

Conducted in the latter-half of the Lee administration, the local elections were seen as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent government, with the result anticipated to set the blanace of political power ahead of the 2012 presidential vote. 

GNP officials, including party chairman Chung Mong-joon, watch election results through television. (Yonhap)
President Lee Myung-bak comes out of a polling booth after casting a ballot. (Yonhap)

The ruling Grand National Party had initially boasted confidence of easily winning at least 10 of the 16 mayoral and gubernatorial posts up for grabs, on the back of the Lee government’s emphasis on a stronger national defense and economic vitalization.

The elections were held amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula in the aftermath of the March sinking of a South Korean warship by North Korea, an issue Lee’s conservative party had hoped would overshadow other political agenda and unite the conservative vote.

Exit polls showed, however, that the GNP was sure to win only five of the 16 district chief positions and largely expected to lose some of the most critical positions to its rival Democratic Party. The races were neck-and-neck in at least five electoral districts, including Seoul, Incheon, Gangwon and even the ruling party’s traditional stronghold of South Gyeongsang.

The larger than expected voter turnout and tight race in many regions indicate many voters were poised to “take a whip” at the Lee government, political analyst Ko Seong-kuk said in a televised interview after the exit polls were announced.

“Preliminary results show voters in some of the most critical regions turned hostile toward the ruling party,” he said. “This proves the North Korea factor was not strong enough to outstrip voters’ negative sentiment toward the Lee Myung-bak government’s lack of attention on regional economy and welfare.”

Voter turnout was provisionally tallied at 54.5 percent by the national election watchdog, the highest in 15 years. High voter turnout generally means more younger, left-leaning voters took part in the elections, working in favor of liberal political parties.

Meanwhile, several factors -- such as the one-year anniversary of the suicide of the late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, the extensive mergers of candidacy among opposition contenders and disputed plan to move some administrative units out of Seoul to a provincial city -- appear to have worked in favor of the liberal main opposition party, pundits said.

Appealing to voters on the need to check the excessive power of the governing camp, the main opposition DP had accentuated policies with better focus on welfare and the nation’s underprivileged.

Several longtime supporters of the late President Roh had jumped into the race, merging candidacy with smaller party contenders and promising to keep alive Roh’s policies aimed at balanced regional development.

President Lee may be forced to make big alternations to his policies in his remaining time in office as a lead up to the elections, Yoon Hee-woong of the Korea Society Opinion Institute said.

“Even if the ruling party wins in the metropolitan regions, its defeat in key regions such as South Chungcheong and South Gyeongsang will serve as a major stumbling block as it seeks to push ahead costly projects such as the restoration of the four rivers,” he said.

Official results of the elections are expected early Thursday morning with many regions showing no clear frontrunner hours after the voting count began, the National Election Commission said. 

By Shin Hae-in