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Opposition parties expand Assembly dominance

Yoon's medical, labor, education, tax reforms likely to face attacks from more hostile legislature

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : April 11, 2024 - 09:22

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From left: Democratic Party of Korea Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung; New Reform Party Chair Lee Jun-seok; Rebuilding Korea Party founder Cho Kuk and Progressive Party's Yoon Jong-oh elected as a lawmaker representing Ulsan's Buk-gu constituency (Yonhap) From left: Democratic Party of Korea Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung; New Reform Party Chair Lee Jun-seok; Rebuilding Korea Party founder Cho Kuk and Progressive Party's Yoon Jong-oh elected as a lawmaker representing Ulsan's Buk-gu constituency (Yonhap)

Opposition parties secured a total of 192 seats in the 300-member National Assembly in the general election Wednesday, expanding their dominance in the parliament and threatening to constrain the ability of South Korea's conservative president to pursue his policy drive.

The ruling bloc managed to defend the 100-seat threshold that could otherwise have deprived President Yoon Suk Yeol of his veto power, a vote count showed Thursday morning.

It was a third victory in a row for the center-left, which allowed them to retain the power to singlehandedly pass or fast-track any bill, although the Democratic Party and Rebuilding Korea Party will have to work together to achieve this.

The outcome suggested that Yoon would become the first South Korean president to see the number of opposition lawmakers outnumber the ruling party in the parliament throughout his entire term, posing hurdles for his domestic agenda, including a U-turn on nuclear power, medical reforms, deregulation and tax cuts on financial income and homeownership.

In the meantime, the outcome of the vote indicated that a clear regional divide still stands in South Korean politics.

Ballot counting, completed at around 11 a.m. Thursday, showed that the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea claimed 161 seats out of the 254 constituencies, while its satellite for proportional representation, the Democratic United Party, clinched 14 seats.

The Democratic Party continued to boast supremacy in the Greater Seoul area. Voters in 102 out of 122 constituencies in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon voted in favor of the main opposition candidates.

One of the winners in Greater Seoul was Democratic Party Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung, who clashed with conservative heavyweight and former Land Minister Won Hee-ryong in the Gyeyang-B constituency of Incheon. With the victory, Lee, 60, is now set for a second term as a lawmaker.

The Democratic Party's Kwak Sang-eon, the son-in-law of the late former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, flipped a seat in Seoul's Jongno electoral district, beating conservative incumbent Rep. Choi Jae-hyeong. Chae Hyeon-il, the former Yeongdeungpo-gu office chief, defeated the incumbent Rep. Kim Young-joo, a former deputy speaker of the National Assembly who defected to the People Power Party just before the election.

The main opposition also managed to flip seats in Gyeonggi Province, as political veterans Rep. Yu Eui-dong and Rep. Kim Hack-yong lost to their liberal opponents.

In the nation's southwest, the Democratic Party's usual stronghold, the main opposition party claimed all 28 seats in Gwangju and the North and South Jeolla Provinces.

Plus, the main opposition won all seven constituencies in Daejeon, the science and technology hub of the country that experienced an abrupt research budget cut this year. Rep. Lee Sang-min, a five-term lawmaker who defected to the People Power Party, was defeated by political novice Hwang Jung-a for the Yuseong-B constituency in Daejeon.

On the other hand, the ruling People Power Party took 90 out of the 254 constituency seats, whereas its satellite People Future Party claimed 18 seats for proportional representation.

Most of their victories came in the nation's southeast, considered a traditional conservative bastion. Of the 65 seats in the region -- consisting of North and South Gyeongsang Provinces, Busan, Daegu and Ulsan, the ruling party won 59.

But the result indicated disparities between Wednesday's exit polls and the actual outcome, tempering exit poll predictions that the opposition bloc would be able to secure at least 200 seats, enough to override a presidential veto or pass a motion to impeach the president.

Among the beneficiaries who prevailed in the actual polls after exit polls predicted a loss in the ruling party were Bundang-B's Kim Eun-hye, who was formerly a presidential aide for public relations, in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province; former Unification Minister Kwon Young-se in Yongsan, Seoul; and Na Kyung-won of Dongjak-B in Seoul.

Others included Bundang-A's Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo; Rep. Kim Tae-ho of Yangsan-B in South Gyeongsang Province; Rep. Cho Jung-hun of Mapo-A in Seoul; and Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of one of the two districts representing Incheon's Dong-gu and Michuhol-gu.

The remaining three constituencies were taken by the New Future Party's Rep. Kim Jong-min, who won in Sejong-A, New Reform Party Chairperson Lee Jun-seok in Hwaseong-B in Gyeonggi Province and the Progressive Party's Yoon Jong-oh in Ulsan's Buk-gu constituency.

The fledgling Rebuilding Korea Party, founded by former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, made a surprise debut. The party, founded just last month, took 12 seats. The party won all of its seats through the proportional representation vote.

Cho himself also won a seat as he was one of the candidates. Cho, who was found guilty in his children's college admissions scandal, has urged voters to make Yoon "a dead duck" through the election.

Yoon, who was formerly the prosecutor general, led an investigation into Cho's family, leading Cho to fall from grace and the courts to hand him a two-year prison term. Cho will lose his seat if his jail sentence is finalized at the Supreme Court. Under South Korea's election rules, another Rebuilding Korea Party candidate will take the place of Cho if he is convicted by the top court, not affecting the number of the party's lawmakers.

The minor center-right New Reform Party, led by estranged conservative politician Lee Jun-seok, won three seats in total. Lee, 39, was leader of the People Power Party during Yoon's presidential election campaign.

Cheon Ha-ram, an outspoken critic of Yoon who fled the People Power Party and joined Lee's nascent party, took a seat through a proportional representation vote in dramatic fashion. Cheon's victory was confirmed after counting 99.97 percent of all votes, according to election authorities.

However, the minor progressive Green Justice Party, formerly known as the Justice Party, failed to secure a single seat. The party held six seats in the previous session of the parliament. The party's four-term lawmaker Rep. Sim Sang-jung came third in the Goyang-A constituency.

Sim on Thursday morning said she would "retire from politics" following her defeat.

Meanwhile, the number of women who won Wednesday's election came to 56, remaining nearly flat compared to the previous 2020 election. Among them, 35 female candidates won their respective constituency elections -- an all-time high in South Korean history. The number of lawmakers aged 40 or younger reached 44, up from 41 in the 2020 election.