The April 27 by-elections to pick National Assemblymen for three districts in Gyeonggi, South Gyeongsang and South Jeolla provinces, the governor of Gangwon Province and to fill vacancies at several local autonomous bodies are about a week away. Neither the ruling nor the opposition party sees a clear lead in any of the parliamentary and gubernatorial contests, and both consider these polls as a barometer for the general and presidential elections in 2012.
In Bundang-B district adjoining Seoul, Sohn Hak-kyu, a presidential contender of the main opposition Democratic Party is challenging in a traditionally conservative constituency. Campaigners for Grand National Party candidate Kang Jae-sup, who had once chaired the party, admit a neck-and-neck race. Opinion surveys give Kang a slight lead within the margin of error.
Nationwide interest is drawn to the contest for the Gangwon governorship, which the DP’s Lee Kwang-jae had won in the June 2 local elections last year but lost due to a conviction for illegal political donations. The GNP’s Ohm Ki-young and the DP’s Choi Mun-sun, who both had served as president of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. (MBC), are battling in the dark.
These votes can reflect the whereabouts of public sentiments after three years of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Particularly in Bundang-B, the upper middle class constituents in the district which houses many well-to-do retirees and professionals make a rather harsh assessment of what the right-wing government has done. But they still have a strong disdain on leftist platforms such as soft approach to North Korea and broader welfare measures.
Sohn, who had been a presidential contender in the GNP until he bolted from the then main opposition party just before the 2007 nomination convention, knows his stained image as a turncoat. Yet, the former political science professor is trying to use his mixed political backgrounds to his advantage by not emphasizing his partisan color ― he rarely wears the DP’s light green uniform on the campaign trail ― but portraying himself as a man of conscience rather than inflexible doctrines.
Regardless of individual campaign strategies at different constituencies, the results of the last by-election before the general elections in April 2012 will be a scorecard for the present administration and the ruling party. A general pessimism is detected from the GNP as its members are aware that the Korean electorate has been generally harsh to the ruling force in local polls and by-elections. The deepening internal strife in the GNP would help squander votes.
So, few would be surprised at a score of four to zero in favor of the opposition. But the governing party needs a shock like that if it is to make a new start toward the goal of “re-creating power” in December 2012. Sohn Hak-kyu’s win or loss in the by-election will significantly affect the race for presidential candidacy in the DP.
The April 27 vote will be a fairly thrilling event for parties as well as people both in and outside the polling districts. Voters can direct the future courses of parties by going to the polls.