May 31, 2006

S.Korean conservatives win big in local polls

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's main conservative party
scored a landslide victory in local elections, official results
showed on Thursday, dealing a blow to President Roh Moo-hyun
and a key aide tipped as a possible successor.

The drubbing for Roh's liberal Uri Party means Roh will
likely will have little power to push forward his agenda to
implement new tax policy, corporate reform and rules on foreign
investment for the little under two years he has left in his
term, analysts said.

It also puts the main opposition and conservative Grand
National Party in the driver's seat ahead of the December 2007
election for South Korea's next president.

South Korean media reported on Thursday Chung Dong-young,
the leader of the Uri Party and a former cabinet member in the
Roh administration, who was seen as a possible presidential
contender, may resign his leadership role to take
responsibility for the loss.

Uri officials were not immediately available for comment.

The main opposition Grand National Party won 12 of 16 major
races for mayors and provincial governors in the election held
on Wednesday, while Roh's progressive Uri Party picked up one
seat, the National Election Commission reported.

The smaller Democratic Party won two of the major regional
races and an independent won the final race, it said. The Grand
National Party won the biggest race for the mayor of Seoul,
where about one in five South Koreans live.

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

But it comes on the heels of Uri suffering two major
setbacks in by-elections for seats in parliament over the past


"The humiliating electoral results for the Uri Party will
constrain the president's ability to implement his reform
objectives, since he will be increasingly perceived as a lame
duck," said Bruce Klingner, an Asia analyst for the U.S.-based
Eurasia Group, in an email.

Klingner said the results could mean an eventual split for
Uri with those who want to see more pragmatic policies on
economic reform and foreign policy likely bolting the party,
leaving behind supporters for more sweeping reforms.

Roh's popularity has steadily eroded -- with support
ratings falling below 30 percent in recent polls -- on public
perceptions his government has failed to boost the economy and
mismanaged foreign affairs.

The Grand National Party was also riding a wave of sympathy
for its leader who was slashed in the face during the campaign.

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

He has also had his run-ins with Washington, warning the
Bush administration Seoul would not support the United States
taking hard-line policies toward Pyongyang.

The Grand National Party takes a tough line against its
neighbor across the heavily militarised border, an hour's drive
north of Seoul.

Its leaders have criticized Roh's government for not doing
enough to protect human rights in North Korea and said Seoul
should attach more strings to the massive aid it gives

(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo, Jack Kim and
Paul Eckert in Washington)