The party secured a simple majority of 152 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, while the main opposition Democratic United Party won 127.
The Saenuri swept races in the swing-vote provinces of Gangwon and Chungcheong, not to mention the conservative heartland of Gyeongsang. The DUP, however, prevailed in Seoul, Gyeonggi, and its traditional stronghold of Jeolla.
The ultra-right Liberty Forward Party took five seats, while independents earned three.
Even with the far-left minority Unified Progressive Party, its alliance partner which bagged 13 seats, the DUP won’t be able to stop the Saenuri Party from passing bills alone.
Park, taking full charge of the campaign, had asked voters to support the Saenuri Party so that it could protect the country’s free trade agreement with the U.S., the Korea-U.S. alliance and various national projects.
The DUP, joining forces with the radical UPP, vowed to revise large parts of the deal, or even scrap the already-implemented treaty all together, claiming that it would only help a few big exporters and damage most local industries.
The outcome came as a surprise because the election took place amid a series of corruption scandals afflicting aides to President Lee Myung-bak and Saenuri members and an explosive allegation that the presidential office may have run a secret surveillance and sabotage operation targeting Lee’s critics.
Contrary to the buoyant mood in Saenuri, the opposition bloc began soul-searching, scrambling to get to grips with what went wrong.
Some blamed poor leadership.
“We had a heaven-sent opportunity for a regime change. And we blew it because of arrogant and complacent leadership,” former Rep. Jang Sung-min said, urging party chief Han Myeong-sook to resign.
Rep. Park Jie-won, a member of the top decision-making Supreme Council, also called for a leadership change.
“The voters were ready (to give us the parliamentary control) but we weren’t. The party leadership has no other option but to resign and that is a responsible move,” he said.
A close aide to Han said she appeared to be mulling over her course of action to take responsibility for the electoral debacle.
Han said that she would make an announcement Friday.
Political experts said Wednesday’s poll gave Park the upper hand in the race for the next presidency, expected to start soon.
The election to pick Lee’s successor is scheduled for Dec. 19. Park, although she is the frontrunner within the Saenuri, faces a possible challenge from Ahn Cheol-soo, whom she trails in a hypothetical matchup in opinion polls. Ahn, who now teaches at a graduate school of Seoul National University, has no party affiliation and has yet to make clear his political ambitions.
Moon Jae-in, Park’s potential rival from the DUP, passed his first test in politics, winning a parliamentary seat in Busan. The former chief of staff to late President Roh Moo-hyun defeated 27-year-old Saenuri candidate Son Su-jo in the city’s Sasang constituency.
His electoral appeal, however, fell short of getting many other liberals elected in the conservative stronghold. Six liberal candidates contested tightly with Saenuri rivals, but just one of them, sitting Rep. Cho Kyoung-tae, won.
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org