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Political big picture hangs on by-election results

The futures of the ruling and opposition parties may hinge on the results of Wednesday’s by-elections, considered a preview of next year’s general and presidential races.

The by-elections are relatively minor in size, involving the replacement of three lawmakers, one provincial governor and 34 municipal or district officials.
Voters cast ballots Wednesday in 38 constituencies nationwide. (From left) Kang Jae-sup of the ruling Grand National Party and Sohn Hak-kyu of the main opposition Democratic Party in Bundang-B; Ohm Ki-young of the GNP and Choi Moon-soon of the DP in Gangwon Province; Kim Tae-ho of the GNP and Lee Bong-soo of the People’s Participation Party in Gimhae-B. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Voters cast ballots Wednesday in 38 constituencies nationwide. (From left) Kang Jae-sup of the ruling Grand National Party and Sohn Hak-kyu of the main opposition Democratic Party in Bundang-B; Ohm Ki-young of the GNP and Choi Moon-soon of the DP in Gangwon Province; Kim Tae-ho of the GNP and Lee Bong-soo of the People’s Participation Party in Gimhae-B. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The race, however, is to act as a milestone between last June’s local elections and next year’s general and presidential contests.

Big names, even potential presidential candidates, have thus stepped out to represent their parties, an unusual practice for by-elections.

Most of the attention is drawn to the three National Assembly seats -- Bundang-B, Gimhae-B and Gangwon Province -- and it is the goal for both the ruling camp and opposition parties to capture at least two.

If either side manages a clean sweep, the outlook would be obvious.

A decisive victory by the ruling Grand National Party would imbue the faltering Lee Myung-bak administration with renewed authority, whereas the main opposition Democratic Party and its leaders would lose ground in the upcoming races.

Should the opposition camp run the table, on the other hand, it would pick up the momentum needed to drag down the ruling party in future elections.

A more plausible scenario would be a two to one score, in favor of one camp or the other.

It is, however, the stance of the GNP that winning in Gimhae and Gangwon would be essentially meaningless if they lose in Bundang, where the party’s former leader Kang Jae-sup confronted DP leader Sohn Hak-kyu.

A DP win in Bundang would indicate a shift in public sentiment and thus a threat to the GNP, as the largely middle-class area has traditionally favored the conservative party.

Even worse, it would draw more attention to Sohn, a powerful opposition candidate for president.

Some may even blame Yim Tae-hee, chief presidential secretary, who designated Kang as Sohn’s opponent.

The Bundang race is also essential for the DP, as Sohn has much to lose as party leader and as a presidential candidate.

“Sohn volunteered to run in Bundang for the sake of the party and therefore is not to blame for the results,” said a DP official.

“He will nevertheless suffer the damages, should he lose in the by-election.”

In Gangwon Province, the legal disputes between candidates are expected to continue even after the election.

The GNP and the DP have recently accused each other of illicit campaigning, with the more serious charge facing GNP candidate Ohm Ki-young, who is suspected of hiring workers to make unlawful campaign calls to voters.

If convicted later, Ohm, who kept a lead over Choi Moon-soon for most of the race, could be deprived of the position, even if elected.

An elected official loses their seat when sentenced to a jail term or fine of at least 1,000,000 won ($925.60) for breaching the public election law.

This was, in fact, how former governor Lee Kwang-jae of the DP lost the seat, making his position available for the by-election.

The minority People’s Participation Party is mostly focusing on the Gimhae-B constituency, where Lee Bong-soo was chosen as the sole opposition candidate.

Party leader Rhyu Si-min, a trusted aide to the late President Roh Moo-hyun, has strongly supported Lee to safeguard the liberal ex-president’s hometown from the GNP.

Lee’s opponent and former South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Tae-ho, on the other hand, also needs the victory to recover from his political downturn since abandoning his nomination as prime minister last year.

The elected lawmakers in the by-elections are to hold office for a year until the general election next April and the Gangwon governor until the local elections in June 2014.

By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)
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