May 31, 2006

S.Korea opposition heads for big win in local polls

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's opposition was headed for a
crushing victory over President Roh Moo-hyun's ruling party in
local elections across the country on Wednesday, according to
television exit polls.

The opposition Grand National Party (GNP) was leading in 11
of the races to pick mayors and provincial governors of 16
major cities and provinces. The ruling Uri Party was leading in
just one, KBS and MBC TV exit polls showed.

"It appears we have failed to read the people's minds," Uri
Party campaign chairman Yum Dong-yun told KBS TV, adding that
the exit polls did not differ much from Uri's own predictions.

The vote for nearly 3,900 posts for mayors, governors, city
councilmen and regional assembly members was unlikely to affect
South Korea's economic and national security policies, at least
in the short run.

But a big win for the GNP, long the party of big business,
would further weaken Roh's government, which has seen a steady
erosion of popularity ahead of a presidential election next

Official results were expected at around midnight (1500
GMT) for the major races.

Uri was fighting an uphill battle even before a jobless
ex-convict was arrested for slashing the cheek of GNP leader
Park Geun-hye with a box cutter during a campaign rally.

Sympathy since then has swelled for Park, 54, the daughter
of a former South Korean military president who was
assassinated in 1979. Her mother was killed during an earlier
attempt to kill the president, Park Chung Hee.

"The attack ... had a big impact," said Sookmyung Women's
University political science professor Lee Nam-young.

Park is expected to be a candidate for the presidency in
2007, when incumbent Roh's term ends.


Public confidence in Roh and his party has dwindled because
of public perceptions it has failed to boost the economy and
mismanaged foreign affairs.

North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions greatly worry its
neighbors and the West, is keenly following the races.

Roh, a liberal former labor lawyer who won the 2002
election by a slim margin, has taken an accommodating approach
to the North and earlier this year said he was willing to make
"many concessions" and provide "unconditional assistance" to

The GNP takes a much harder line against its neighbor
across the heavily militarized border, an hour's drive north of
Seoul. The 1950-53 Korean war ended in an armed truce that has
never been replaced with a peace treaty.

North Korea's official KCNA news agency, quoting one of its
proxy groups overseas called "the Federation of Koreans in the
U.S." made its sympathies clear: "In case the GNP wins a
sweeping victory, it will mean a disaster for the Korean

Voters were mostly worried about pocketbook issues,

"My priority is who would be able to help ease youth
unemployment," said Lee Jin-kyu in Seoul.

The contest for mayor of the capital, arguably the second
most important elected office in the country, was one of the
most watched races, pitting Uri's former justice minister Kang
Kum-sil, a woman, against former GNP lawmaker Oh Se-hoon. The
exit polls showed Oh was winning with two-thirds of the vote.

Outgoing mayor Lee Myung-bak, a former construction company
chief known as "the bulldozer," has become another leading
presidential contender after pushing through highly praised
urban renewal projects.

A big GNP victory could boost the standing of its candidate
in next year's presidential race -- and parliamentary polls the
following year -- while triggering calls both within and
outside Uri for the party to split.

Uri has only 143 seats in the 299-member National Assembly
and needs the support of lawmakers from other parties to
govern. The GNP has 123 seats.