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Voters go to polls in pivotal local elections

Surveys, analysts hint at win for People Power Party

Voters at a polling station in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, during Wednesday`s local elections. (Yonhap)
Voters at a polling station in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, during Wednesday`s local elections. (Yonhap)
Voters across the country on Wednesday headed to polling stations for local elections and parliamentary by-elections, with prior opinion polls indicating a likely win for the ruling People Power Party.

Main voting started at 14,465 polling stations across the country at 6 a.m. Wednesday for 44.3 million eligible voters to pick new local government officials to serve for the next four years. COVID-19 patients and those under quarantine were given from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. to cast their votes.

Seventeen new metropolitan mayors and provincial governors were to be elected by the end of the night, as well as the heads of 226 other local administrative units. The Wednesday elections were also held to fill 872 seats in provincial and metropolitan councils, and 2,988 in lower-level local councils.

The National Election Commission said 7,616 people had registered as candidates, recording an overall competition rate of 1.8 candidates per open seat. The previous record-low competition rate was 2.3 in 2014. The competition rate for the 17 metropolitan mayoral and provincial gubernatorial elections was 3.2.

On the sidelines of the local elections, voters in some regions cast additional ballots to pick six new lawmakers in parliamentary by-elections, where some major political heavyweights had registered in hopes to return to the center stage of South Korean politics.

Two-day early voting for the Wednesday elections that ran until Saturday ended with a turnout of 20.62 percent, with more than 9.13 million voters casting their ballots. It was the highest turnout reached for local elections and fourth-highest for any nationwide election in South Korea.

The election watchdog assessed the final turnout to surpass the 60.2 percent reached in the last local elections. But aggregate turnout, including votes cast in the early voting period, marked 50 percent as of 6 p.m.

The Wednesday elections were largely expected to fall in favor of the ruling People Power Party due to the public’s relatively favorable reception of the Yoon administration that kicked off on May 10. The conservative party also benefited from the Democratic Party of Korea struggling with internal feuds and a series of sexual misconduct scandals.

Analysts and opinion surveys have widely hinted at a strong victory for the People Power Party and its candidates in many regions, with some even forecasting the ruling party to clinch as many as 13 out of the 17 mayoral and gubernatorial elections.

Both parties were expected to maintain their respective strongholds. The People Power Party was forecast to safely win in Daegu, Ulsan, Busan, North Gyeongsang Province and South Gyeongsang Province, while the Democratic Party showed clear leads for North Jeolla Province, South Jeolla Province, Gwangju and Jeju Island.

The outcome in the local elections is likely to serve as a starting point for a phase of dramatic transformation in South Korea’s political scene, with new faces emerging as leaders of major parties moving forward.

If it fails to win a majority of votes as expected, the Democratic Party is likely to have incumbent leaders “take responsibility” and resign from their posts, while resuming a blame game that should have ended when the party lost the presidential election in March.

Voters have already seen a preview of the blame game unfolding before the election took place, as Park Ji-hyun, co-chair of the emergency steering committee for the Democratic Party, faced headwinds for blaming the “586 Generation” -- those in their 50s and early 60s -- for the party’s popularity loss.

Yet experts say Lee Jae-myung, 57, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in March, will remain at the center of the party during and after reforms, as he is still considered the most likely figure to bear the party’s flag in the next presidential election, slated for 2027.

“The Democratic Party has no choice but to push for Lee Jae-myung again as its leader; it doesn’t have anyone else to take the role and exert influence like he does now,” Eom Gyeong-yeong, head of local think tank Zeitgeist Institute, told The Korea Herald.

“But we do know for sure that virtually everyone else in leadership posts will be replaced with new figures.”

Lee is likely to bid for the party chairmanship at the Democratic Party’s next national convention in August, then gradually grow his influence to run in the next presidential election without much internal opposition.

Some have raised the possibility of the “pro-Moon Jae-in” faction returning to the fore, but the likelihood is contested among experts, as negative sentiment toward the Moon administration is at the root of the Democratic Party’s downfall in recent years.

Experts also believe the Democratic Party will shift its strategic focus and eventually decide to comply with the Yoon administration and its initiatives in the meantime. Finding faults with the administration and the conservative bloc if these initiatives fail will be strategically beneficial, they say.

The liberal party will still look to use its power in the legislative branch by pushing to fill chairperson posts in major parliamentary committees with those favorable to the party until the next general elections take place in 2024.

“The Democratic Party is pushed to the corner, which means it has to somewhat comply and work with the People Power Party and the Yoon Suk-yeol government even though it has a supermajority in the legislative branch,” local political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon told The Korea Herald.

“Still it will choose what initiatives to comply with and what items to fight against. After all, the Democratic Party is the main opposition party, and that role comes with certain sets of responsibilities.”

The cleanup time expected for the Democratic Party would allow the Yoon administration and his People Power Party to face fewer hurdles in carrying out pledges made during the campaign that require approval from the Democratic Party-dominated National Assembly.

The liberal party’s loss, even though it would not directly weaken its power in the parliament, would aid the Yoon administration’s smooth political start, as the Democratic Party would be searching for ways to win back support from voters for later elections.

Some have speculated that a successful outcome in the local elections will prompt the People Power Party to prepare its next batch of leadership figures, as Chairman Lee Jun-seok’s term comes to an end in June 2023.

Ahn Cheol-soo, if he wins the parliamentary by-election for a constituency in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, as expected, is touted as a possible figure in the next chairman election, as is Rep. Chung Jin-suk, a five-term ruling party lawmaker with close ties to Yoon.

Lee Jun-seok may face pressure to resign from his post, as he faces possible penalties from the party over allegations he received sexual favors as bribes on two occasions in 2013. This may serve as the catalyst for an internal feud in the People Power Party, experts say.

“There is a possibility that President Yoon Suk-yeol secretly requests the People Power Party to elect a new chairman who can show the best synergy with him moving forward,” Eom from the Zeitgeist Institute said.

“Lee Jun-seok faces pressure internally, and the president could start a call within the ruling party to open a nationwide convention to elect the new chairman.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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