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Final stretch for by-elections

Issues of economy, ferry disaster add unpredictability to election outcome

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Published : 2014-07-27 20:01
Updated : 2014-07-27 20:29

The ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy are making last-minute efforts to whip up support for their candidates in the crucial by-elections slated for Wednesday.

Referred to as “miniature general elections,” the upcoming elections will seat 15 new members of the National Assembly. For the ruling party, the elections provide a chance to regain a majority in the 300-seat parliament. While the NPAD has no chance of taking a majority in the parliament, a clear win would bolster its claim of having the people on its side.

The ruling party holds 147 seats while the NPAD holds 127. 
The parties began an “all-out” last-minute spurt on Sunday, prompted by a record-breaking turnout in the two-day early voting that ended on Saturday.

Overall, 7.98 percent of the voters in the concerned regions cast their votes.

In the strategically important Dongjak-B constituency of Seoul and the Suncheon-Gokseong constituency in South Jeolla Province, the figures exceeded 13 percent.

In comparison, the figures for last year’s April and October by-elections came in at 6.93 percent and 5.45 percent, respectively.

The ruling party, which is expected to maintain its majority in the parliament, has made economic recovery its key agenda. According to the two main parties’ assessments, the Saenuri Party holds the upper hand in six constituencies. In addition, ruling party candidates are considered to have a small lead in two, and to be in a close race in three other constituencies. In contrast, the NPAD has a clear lead in only three constituencies in its stronghold of the Jeolla provinces.

“The government’s special plans for reviving the … economy can only succeed if the Saenuri Party holds a stable majority in the parliament,” Saenuri Party chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung said at a rally for Yoo Eui-dong in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, on Saturday.

Individual candidates are also touting the party’s connection to President Park Geun-hye and its role in supporting the government’s economic plans to garner support.

Among them is former senior presidential secretary Lee Jung-hyun, who vows to bring a “budget bomb” to the Suncheon-Gokseong constituency in South Jeolla Province if he is elected.

Aided in part by his connections to President Park, Lee is enjoying unprecedented support in the region, which has long been dominated by the main opposition.

According to recent polls conducted by local broadcasters, Lee is ahead of the NPAD’s Seo Kap-won by nearly 5 percentage points.

The main opposition is once again betting on the strategy of highlighting the current administration’s faults in an attempt to use the elections to “pass judgment” on it.

Citing the failure of law enforcement agencies to arrest Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the ill-fated ferry Sewol, NPAD leaders stressed the supposed incompetence of the administration.

“The incompetence and irresponsibility of the Park Geun-hye administration must be stopped now. (The people) must put the brakes on the arrogant, self-righteous, stubborn and uncommunicative politics of the administration,” NPAD cochairmen Reps. Ahn Cheol-soo and Kim Han-gil said in a joint statement on Sunday.

“The July 30 elections is a contest between those who want to unearth the truth about the Sewol tragedy and those who want to hide it. It is a contest between those who want change and those who refuse it.”

The NPAD and the minor opposition Justice Party are also seeking a boost from the tried and tested strategy of fielding unified candidates.

The strategy, used mainly by progressive opposition parties, involves parties or candidates bowing out in specific electorates in order to prevent progressive votes from being divided.

This time around the “unified candidate strategy” has revolved around individual candidates, rather than on the party level.

On Thursday, the NPAD’s Ki Dong-min opted to quit and support the Justice Party’s Roh Heo-chan in the race for Seoul’s Dongjak-B constituency. Ki’s announcement was followed shortly after by the resignation of Justice Party contenders for Suwon-C and Suwon-D constituencies.

There is, however, a tricky variable for the upcoming elections, namely the Sewol ferry tragedy that left more than 300 people dead or missing.

Ever since the 6,800-ton Sewol sank in the West Sea on April 16, the accident has sparked multiple partisan battles at the National Assembly.

The partisan tug-of-war over the special Sewol bill is the most recent ferry-related issue likely to influence the coming by-elections.

The special bill proposes setting up an inquiry panel to determine the causes of the ferry disaster. Parties disagree on whether to give the panel prosecutorial powers. Opposition officials support empowering inquirers with legal authority while ruling party officials reject such proposals.

With public opinion over the bill likewise divided, experts say the ongoing political war over the bill’s legislation will affect voter sentiment before the polls open on Wednesday.

Last week, opposition lawmakers and families of Sewol victims marched on the National Assembly, urging ruling party officials to give prosecutorial powers to an inquiry panel. NPAD floor leader Rep. Park Young-sun even threatened to block the legislation of other bills that Saenuri officials support if governing party officials did not go along with the opposition.

The recent arrest of Yoo Dae-kyoon, the eldest son of the deceased Yoo Byung-eun, could also affect the elections. Authorities grabbed Yoo last week, more than 70 days after the police put him on their most wanted list.

As for Yoo Byung-eun, a state agency on Friday confirmed that the body found by a farmer on June 12 was indeed that of the 73-year-old fugitive billionaire, but it failed to reveal the cause of his death.

The Yoo family is alleged to be the de facto owners of Chonghaejin Marine Co., which operated the Sewol ferry. Prosecutors accuse the Yoos of indirectly contributing to the disaster by tapping into company funds for personal use.

By Choi He-suk and Jeong Hunny
(cheesuk@heraldcorp.com) (hj257@heraldcorp.com)

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