Saenuri Party candidate Lee Jung-hyun defeated his liberal opponent in Wednesday’s by-elections at a constituency in South Jeolla Province, a region long considered to be a progressive stronghold.
Lee’s victory in the Suncheon-Goksung constituency marks the first time since 1996 a conservative has won a parliamentary seat from the Jeolla provinces.
The conservative ruling Saenuri Party won 11 of the 15 contested parliamentary seats in the July 30 by-elections, in a landslide victory over opposition parties.
But experts are highlighting Lee’s victory as the election’s biggest upset.
|Lee Jung-hyun greets citizens in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, on his bicycle on Thursday. Lee, a member of the Saenuri Party, defeated his liberal competitor in Wednesday’s by-elections to become the first conservative lawmaker to be elected in a Jeolla constituency since 1996. (Yonhap)|
“Lee’s win shows that regionalism has less significance in South Korean elections,” Lee Nae-young, professor of comparative politics at Korea University, said.
“For the past 30 or so years, voters in the (Jeolla region) had voted for (liberal) candidates as a rule, no matter what credentials candidates had.”
The Jeolla provinces have long been considered the home turf of liberal parties, with liberals usually winning the lion’s share of the votes in local, general and presidential elections.
In the 2012 presidential elections, liberal candidate Rep. Moon Jae-in won more than 80 percent of the votes in the region. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the leading liberal party in South Korea, won all three of the top mayoral and gubernatorial races there in the June 4 local elections this year.
Of the 30 lawmakers representing the region in South Korea’s unicameral legislature, 29 are affiliated with liberal parties, despite Lee’s win.
On Wednesday, Lee defeated his liberal competitor Suh Gab-won of the NPAD by collecting 49.4 percent of the votes. Suh won 40.3 percent. More than 70 percent of voters in Goksung County, Lee’s hometown, voted for the Saenuri candidate.
Regionalism will still play a big role in Korean politics however, according to one political analyst.
“Reports that Lee’s victory sounds the trumpets of an end to regionalism is going too far,” Choi Young-jin, professor of Korean politics at Chung-ang University, said.
“The votes that Lee won are sympathy votes.”
Lee has in fact unsuccessfully run in the Jeolla regions in two parliamentary elections as a conservative. In the 2012 general elections, he came close to winning by receiving 39.7 percent of the votes, an unusually high tally for a Saenuri Party candidate from a Jeolla electorate.
With Wednesday’s election victory, Lee achieved his political ambitions on his third bid.
The 55-year-old is a close confidant of conservative President Park Geun-hye. Lee served as the president’s chief political affairs secretary and then as Park’s public relations officer until June.
After resigning from his post in Cheong Wa Dae, the politician vowed to tear down party lines in the Jeolla region by winning as a conservative in the July by-elections in the Suncheon-Goksung district.
By Jeong Hunny (firstname.lastname@example.org)