South Korean opposition wins parliamentary elections

Main opposition Minjoo Party wins 123 seats in South Korean parliament, ends 16-year conservative ruling party’s domination

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Ahn Cheol soo, the minor opposition People's Party co-chairman, celebrates his victory in the parliamentary election at his office in Seoul, South Korea, April 13, 2016.

Main opposition party in South Korea surprisingly won parliamentary elections on Wednesday and ended 16-year conservative ruling party’s domination.

The outcome, will likely threaten President Park Geun hye’s plans to push ahead with controversial economic reforms, including plans to make it easier for companies to lay off workers, and blow open next year’s presidential race.

The emergence of a new centre-left party also ensures further changes to South Korea’s political landscape, which had long been shaped by two-party dynamics.

Prior to Wednesday’s parliamentary election, pollsters had predicted that the ruling Saenuri Party would crush a divided opposition and raise its expectations to take the presidency in 2017, after Park’s single term expires.

But with 99.9 percent of the votes counted as of Thursday morning, Saenuri wasn’t even the party with the largest number of seats, let alone a majority in the 300-seat assembly.

Park has also fallen short on most of her key economic promises, a failure she puts down to legislative inaction.

But critics accuse her of skewed priorities, poor decision-making and a dogmatic style of leadership.

"People punished Park for her poor performance in economy," Minjoo Party President Kim Chong In said.

Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, watches news reports on results of the parliamentary election in Seoul, South Korea, April 13, 2016 / Reuters

Saenuri managed to win 122 seats, one less than the main opposition Minjoo Party, which trounced its rival in the capital Seoul and the neighbouring metropolitan area, where the two largest parties competed most fiercely.

The People’s Party, a new party created mostly by those who left Minjoo, including its former co-chairman and potential presidential candidate Ahn Cheol soo, won 38 seats after dominating Minjoo in its traditional strongholds in the southwest Jeolla regions.

Saenuri could possibly overtake Minjoo as the largest party in the next assembly if it manages to lure back some of its former lawmakers who left and ran successfully as independents. They left Saenuri after being denied nominations amid a rift between the party’s dominant faction loyal to Park and reformists, which analysts say damaged the party’s appeal to voters.

Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chairman of the opposition People's Party, is greeted by his supporters after winning the parliamentary election at his office in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 13, 2016 / AP

The National Election Commission was expected to announce the official results soon.

There has been disappointment among South Koreans over a sluggish economy, with official figures showing household debt reaching new highs and the unemployment rate for people under 30 reaching levels not seen since the late 1990s, when millions lost their jobs during a crippling financial crisis.

The outcome of the vote indicates that the opposition parties have successfully absorbed conservative voters who have become disappointed with Park. Months before the vote, Minjoo brought in as chairman scholar-turned-politician Kim Chong In, who had advised Park on economic policies during the 2012 presidential campaign. Ahn, the founder of one of South Korea’s largest computer software companies, has portrayed himself as a politician whose strength is with economic issues.

The weak showing by Saenuri also shows that voters weren’t swayed by national security issues as much as they were before, although surveys taken prior to Wednesday’s vote showed strong support for Park’s hard-line approach to North Korea following its recent nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.

Won Yoo-Cheol, center, floor leader of South Korean ruling Saenuri Party, and other party members react as they watch TV news reporting exit polls of the parliamentary elections at the party headquarters in Seoul Wednesday, April 13, 2016 / AP

Hostility between the rival Koreas in election years has often been seen as helping the conservatives by allowing them to highlight their hard-line approach against the North. Liberals have traditionally backed rapprochement policies with the North.

The election commission estimated that 58 percent of the country’s 42 million voters participated in Wednesday’s election, a higher turnout than four years ago, when 54.2 percent of the electorate turned out. It wasn’t immediately clear whether larger participation by younger voters, seen as more likely to vote for liberals than voters over 50, contributed to the increase in turnout.

Since losing its second consecutive presidential election in 2012, the Minjoo Party has struggled with factional infighting and lawmaker defections, and saw its seats decline from 127 to 102 in the current assembly.

South Korea’s electorate is deeply divided along generational and ideological lines, and also by fierce regional loyalties. Voters in the southeast Gyeongsang regions have for decades overwhelmingly voted for conservatives in parliamentary and presidential elections.

TRTWorld and agencies