The conservative ruling Saenuri Party won a landslide victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary by-elections, consolidating its absolute majority in the 300-seat National Assembly.
The Saenuri Party gained 11 of the 15 seats up for grabs, while the liberal main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy garnered the remaining four. What was particularly encouraging for the ruling party was that its candidates won in five of six closely contested races in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, and in a district in South Jeolla Province, a traditional stronghold of the liberal opposition.
Seoul and Gyeonggi voters, who are relatively free of the antagonistic regionalism that has long framed politics here, have held the key to the results of past general elections.
South Jeolla Province has sent no conservative party contender to parliament since 1988. Thus, the win of Lee Jung-hyun, a close confidant to President Park Geun-hye, in a constituency in the southeastern part of the province, marked a significant step toward changing the political configuration formed along regional fault lines that overlap with ideological confrontation.
The lopsided victory is expected to give a strong impetus to President Park’s initiatives to reinvigorate the slowing economy and reform the way the nation is run in the wake of the tragic ferry sinking in April. The new Saenuri leadership elected last month is also likely to consolidate its grip on the party.
But Park and Saenuri leaders should recognize that the unexpected landslide victory mainly reflected voters’ displeasure with the opposition party’s repeated attempts to use the ferry disaster for political gain, blocking the passage of bills needed to boost the economy and improve people’s livelihoods. They should redouble efforts to deliver the promise to enable ordinary people to lead more affordable, more comfortable and safer lives. President Park needs to change her governing style, which is not sensitive to public opinion, as shown through her nominations of inappropriate figures for key Cabinet posts.
The NPAD’s humiliating defeat dealt a serious blow to its coleaders Kim Han-gil and Ahn Cheol-soo, who held themselves responsible for botched election strategies out of tune with voter sentiment. But a hard-line faction in the party could hardly be a better alternative.
What the opposition party has to do now is to depart from its preoccupation with criticizing and profiting from the failures of the government and put forward its own policy initiatives to win voters’ hearts.
The rival parties will have no major electoral contests until parliamentary elections are held nationwide in April 2016. In the lead-up to the polls, which will be followed by a presidential vote in 2017, the ruling and opposition parties should refrain from partisan wrangling and work to make the legislature more productive and instrumental in overcoming difficulties facing the nation.
If the ruling camp fails to deliver its promise, Wednesday’s landslide victory might prove a poisoned chalice for it in future elections. On the contrary, a drastic change could turn the opposition’s humiliating loss into valuable momentum for its revival.
After her win was confirmed in a Seoul constituency, a Saenuri candidate committed herself to promoting a politics of compromise and dialogue. This type of attitude is now required of all lawmakers.