Elections set new political balance

By Korea Herald

Progressives’ sweep of education offices heralds major policy changes

  • Published : Jun 5, 2014 - 20:51
  • Updated : Jun 5, 2014 - 21:27
The ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy will confront a slew of challenges ahead with neither side gaining a clear advantage in Wednesday’s local elections.

The NPAD took nine of the 17 metropolitan mayoral and gubernatorial races including Seoul, which went to Park Won-soon, who will soon begin his second term, while the ruling party took eight.

In races for lower-level administrative posts and seats in metropolitan, provincial and lower-level assemblies, however, the ruling party crushed the opposition.

Results show that the ruling party candidates will take office as chiefs of nearly half of lower-level administrations. In addition, conservative legislators are set to dominate the assemblies of metropolitan and provincial assemblies, breaking the long-held tradition of the opposition bloc holding sway in such bodies. 

Progressive candidates swept the elections for local educational chiefs, signaling a major change in school policies toward a more egalitarian approach.

Cho Hi-yeon, once considered the outsider in the race for Seoul education superintendent, pulled off an upset as a bitter family feud wrecked the campaign of his conservative rival. Including Seoul, voters in 13 of the 17 metropolitan and provincial areas opted for progressive education chiefs. 
(left) Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (NPAD), (right) Seoul education chief-elect Cho Hi-yeon

Although the main opposition’s wins in major local administrations outnumbered those of the ruling party, the NPAD lost both Incheon and Gyeonggi Province despite earlier projections that its candidates stood a high chance of winning.

The presidential office said Thursday it would accept the election results. “The will of the people contained in each vote will be humbly taken and (the administration) will do its utmost in national modification to make a new Korea,” Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Min Kyung-wook said Thursday.

“The results, which contain many meanings at a time the nation is going through difficulties, are the will of the people.”

The elections were seen as a referendum on the administration in the wake of the April 16 ferry disaster that left more than 300 people dead or missing. The government has been sharply criticized for its poor handling of the accident.

As such, the main opposition had appealed for voters’ support for its candidates, emphasizing safety and accusing the government and the ruling party of incompetence and irresponsibility.

The ruling party, in contrast, asked for voters’ support, claiming that putting its candidates in office would give the Park Geun-hye administration the strength it needs to drive national reform.

With neither side a clear winner, both the ruling party and the NPAD softened their official stances and comments, saying they accept the people’s decision and they will work to improve the country.

“(The party) won Daegu and other areas, but the formidable support given to the opposition is taken as a strong chastisement,” Saenuri Party floor leader Rep. Lee Wan-koo said Thursday.

“(The will of the opposition supporters) will also be reflected in running state affairs in the future in the form of innovation and change.”

Although the Saenuri Party ultimately held on to its key strongholds of Daegu and Busan, the opposition candidates received record levels of support.

In Daegu, President Park Geun-hye’s political hometown with a long history of conservatism, the NPAD’s Kim Boo-kyum received more than 40 percent of the votes. In Busan, another conservative stronghold, the Saenuri Party’s Suh Byung-soo only narrowly beat progressive independent Oh Keo-don. 
Daegu Mayor-elect Kwon Young-jin (Saenuri) (Yonhap), Ulsan Mayor-elect Kim Gi-hyeon (Saenuri) (Yonhap)
Daejeon Mayor-elect Kwon Sun-taek (NPAD) (Yonhap), Gangwon Governor-elect Choi Moon-soon (NPAD) (Yonhap)

As for the NPAD, the main opposition took the traditionally conservative North Chungcheong Province as well as South Chungcheong Province and Sejong City. However, those achievements are marred by its loss in the regions surrounding Seoul.

“(The Party) will humbly uphold the people’s command for the ruling and opposition parties to work together to make Korea anew. The results of the elections cannot be categorized into victory and defeat, nor should they be,” NPAD spokesman Park Gwang-on said.

He added that the results contain both a stern warning for the administration as well as encouragement for the opposition to work harder, and that the people have expressed their desire for both parties to change.

“The NPAD will change first. The party will respond to the people’s commands from an even lower position, and become a responsible alternative party.”

The two main parties’ apparent will to work together, however, is unlikely to last long with a critical parliamentary by-elections just around the corner.

The upcoming by-elections have been dubbed “mini general elections” due to the large number of parliamentary seats up for grabs.

On July 30, at least 12 National Assembly seats vacated by lawmakers convicted of election law violations and by those who ran in the local elections will be contested.

In addition, there are six more seats whose current owners could be removed as a result of ongoing trials.

With the ruling party currently holding 149, and the NPAD 127 of the 300 parliamentary seats, the result of the July elections could remove the Saenuri Party’s dominance in the National Assembly.

In addition to the upcoming elections, the NPAD is faced with the possibility of factional infighting being rekindled.

The NPAD’s leaders are already receiving fire from within the party.

“The strategic nomination (of Yoon) in Gwangju and concentrating party resources in Gwangju led to inefficient support in Gyeonggi, Incheon and other areas (and these) were the cause of defeat,” former opposition floor leader Rep. Park Jie-won wrote on his Twitter account.

Gwangju mayor-elect Yoon Jang-hyun is a key associate of Ahn. Yoon’s nomination, despite his relative obscurity in politics, was seen as a move to bolster NPAD cochairman Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo’s position.

Yoon’s nomination amplified in-house friction, resulting in the defection of a significant number of party members including Kang Woon-tae. In the run-up to the elections, Kang gained significant support, threatening to steal the Gwangju mayoral seat from the main opposition.

“Such candidate nominations should not be made, and factional nominations should be abolished for the July 30 by-elections.”

By Choi He-suk (