Early results of the largest-ever parliamentary by-elections Wednesday indicated an overall win for the ruling Saenuri Party.
With 15 seats up for grabs, the elections are considered a mid-term referendum on the Park Geun-hye administration and critical for political parties to gain the upper hand for the rest of the 19th National Assembly.
Despite the parties’ attempt to sell the by-elections dubbed the “miniature general elections” as a make-or-break opportunity for the country, voter participation came in at 32.9 percent, falling below the average for by-elections since 2000 at 33.5 percent. However, the figures for Seoul’s Dongjak-B and South Jeolla Province’s Suncheon-Gokseong constituencies, which the parties had concentrated heavy fire on, came in respectively at 46.8 percent and 51 percent.
|Kwon Eun-hee (Yonhap)|
Of the 15 constituencies, ruling party candidates had the lead in 11 regions as of 10 p.m. If the elections pan out as the early results suggest, the Saenuri Party’s share of the 300-seat National Assembly could be boosted to 158. In comparison, the seats held by NPAD will rise to 130 from 126.
Saenuri Party candidates in the Busan and Ulsan constituencies were headed for landslide wins, while those running for Gyeonggi Province’s Gimpo and Pyeongtaek-B were in the lead. Saenuri candidates for Chungju, North Chungcheong Province and South Chuncheong’s Seosan-Taean were leading comfortably.
In Seoul’s Dongjak-B, Saenuri Party’s Na Kyung-won received 52.13 percent of the counted votes, leading Roh Hoe-chan of the Justice Party despite hopes that the de facto opposition alliance would boost his chances.
With the exception of Gwangju’s Gwangsan-B, Gyeonggi Province’s Suwon-D and the Jeolla Province constituencies, main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy candidates were trailing by varying degrees.
In Suncheon-Gokseong of South Jeolla Province, however, Saenuri Party’s Lee Jung-hyun was leaving NPAD’s Seo Kap-won far behind as of 10 p.m.
At the time Lee, one of President Park Geun-hye’s closest allies, received 65.1 percent while Seo had received 28.7 percent of the votes. If Lee wins, it will be the first time the seat has been taken by a conservative since 1988. In addition, a loss to a key-man of the Park administration in the main opposition’s stronghold would deal a severe blow to the NPAD’s leadership.
In an attempt to encroach on Saenuri Party territory, and the ruling party on NPAD territory, both sides called on their heavyweights.
For Gyeonggi Province’s Suwon-C seat, previously held by the province’s Gov. Nam Kyung-pil of the Saenuri Party for five consecutive terms, the NPAD chose former opposition leader Sohn Hak-kyu. For Gimpo, the NPAD is betting on former South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Kim Du-kwan.
|Kim Yong-nam (Yonhap)|
Sohn, however, was trailing rookie Kim Yong-nam of the Saenuri Party by about 5.5 percentage points at 10 p.m. Kim was also lagging by nearly 13 percentage points behind the ruling party’s Hong Cheol-ho.
In the run up to the elections, the NPAD had highlighted the government’s failings in the April 16 sinking of the ferry Sewol, which resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people.
The discovery of the body of the ferry’s owner Yoo Byung-eun has also added to the public’s distrust of the government. On July 25, the police announced that a body found on June 12 was that of Yoo, and admitted to shortcomings in its actions regarding the body. Yoo had been “on the run” since early May and the government had operated a massive manhunt for more than two months.
President Park Geun-hye’s approval ratings have also suffered significantly, brought down by the string of unsuccessful nominations for high level government posts.
|Residents cast their votes at a Dongjak-B polling station on Wednesday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)|
Throughout the 13-day campaign period ending Tuesday, Saenuri Party emphasized the economy, while the NPAD attempted to rally support by highlighting the government’s shortcomings.
“Political stability is essential for solving livelihood-related problems of the people. For this securing majority in the assembly is crucial,” Saenuri Party chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung said Wednesday.
With the Saenuri Party already holding 49 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, the ruling party only needs to win in four voting districts to clinch a majority.
However, despite the Saenuri leadership’s claims, a parliamentary majority may largely be symbolic.
According to 2012 amendments to the National Assembly Act, a political party must occupy at least 60 percent or 180 of the parliamentary seats in order to pass contentious bills.
As such, the Saenuri Party can push its share at most to 162, which is still well short of the 180-seat cutline that would give the conservatives the ability to push through bills resisted by the opposition parties.
The NPAD, for its part, promoted the elections as an opportunity for the public to pass “judgment” on the government for its mishandling of the April 16 Sewol ferry disaster.
“Today’s by-elections are for making the government answer for its incompetence seen in the Sewol tragedy, disastrous personnel management and the investigation into Yoo Byung-eun,” NPAD co-chairman Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo said Wednesday.
“Whether our society collapses again or moves forward through self-reflection and (taking) responsibility hangs on each and every vote.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by NPAD co-chairman Rep. Kim Han-gil who asked the voters to “raise the cane on those in power.”
By Choi He-suk and Jeong Hunny
(email@example.com) (hj257@ heraldcorp.com)