May 31, 2006

S.Korean opposition scores big win in local polls

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's opposition won a crushing
victory over President Roh Moo-hyun's ruling party in local
elections on Wednesday, according to the official election
commission and television exit polls.

Riding a wave of sympathy for its leader who was slashed in
the face during the campaign and public disenchantment over the
ruling party, the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) won 11
of 16 major races to pick mayors and provincial governors.

The ruling Uri Party was leading in just one, the National
Election Commission said. Races in two other regions were too
close to call with about a half of the votes counted, and the
smaller Democratic Party was leading in two regional races.

"We humbly accept the judgment of the people shown through
the elections," Uri Party Chairman Chung Dong-young was quoted
as saying by spokesman Woo Sang-ho as he left party

The vote for nearly 3,900 posts for mayors, governors, city
councilors and regional assembly members was unlikely to affect
economic and national security policies in the short run.

But the big win for the GNP would further weaken Roh's
government, whose popularity has steadily eroded ahead of a
presidential election next year on public perceptions it failed
to boost the economy and mismanaged foreign affairs.

"As a result, the bitter partisanship seen in recent months
will continue, impeding progress on controversial but valuable
legislation, including tax policy, corporate reform and foreign
investment," said Korea expert Bruce Klingner of Eurasia Group
in Washington.

At 1530 GMT, Uri was also headed for a shutout in races for
district officers in all seven major cities including Seoul and
throughout the Kyonggi province in the capital region. Voter
turnout was light at 51 percent of the 37 million voters.

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.
Prosecutors indicted the man late on Wednesday for attempted
murder and election law violations, an official said.

Sympathy has swelled since then 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.

Park is a possible candidate for the presidency in 2007.


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

Roh, a liberal former labor lawyer who narrowly won the
2002 election, has struck an accommodating tone toward the
North and earlier this year said he was willing to make "many
concessions" and give "unconditional assistance" to Pyongyang.

The GNP takes a harder line against its neighbor across the
heavily militarized border, an hour's drive north of Seoul.

North Korea's official media said South Korean voters must
turn out to defeat the GNP, describing the poll as a "highly
important issue related to the life and death of the nation."

Voters, however, said they were mostly worried about
pocketbook issues.

In the contest for mayor of the capital, Seoul, arguably
the second most important elected office in the country, former
Uri justice minister Kang Kum-sil conceded defeat to former GNP
lawmaker and environment lawyer Oh Se-hoon, who was leading
with 61 percent of the votes.

(Additional reporting by Yoo Choonsik in Seoul and Paul
Eckert in Washington)