July 26, 2006

South Korea’s Roh likely to suffer by-election blow

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's unpopular president Roh
Moo-hyun faced another likely setback to his leadership on
Wednesday as voting started in parliamentary by-elections that
were expected to be swept by the main opposition.

Pre-election polling indicated the conservative Grand
National Party would win three or all four of the seats up for
grabs. Roh's left-of-centre Uri Party was expected to be shut
out, and the liberal Democratic Party had a shot in one race.

Uri and Roh, battling the lowest public support ratings of
his presidency, have not fared well in recent elections. The
Grand National Party overwhelmingly won local races in May
while Uri failed to win a parliamentary seat in two
by-elections in 2005.

Roh was criticized after North Korea test-fired seven
missiles on July 5 despite international warnings against the
move. Several leading voices charged his government of being
too soft with its policy of engaging its reclusive neighbor.

Polling conducted before the launch showed Roh's support
rate already at just 15 to 20 percent.

South Koreans are increasingly skeptical about the efficacy
of increasing ties with the North under the "Sunshine Policy,"
first started by Roh's predecessor Kim Dae-jung.

"The 'Sunshine Policy' has lost some of its legitimacy
among the Korean public because of the North Korean missile
test. This undermines the influence of President Roh," said Lee
Nae-young, a political science professor at Korea University.

The wavering support for Roh and Uri, which translates as
"us" or "our," has made it difficult for the government to
enact its agenda of reforms for the corporate and property

The Grand National Party, which is considered to be more
pro-business, has called for cuts in income and corporate taxes
to spur spending in South Korea, the world's 11th-largest

South Korea's economy grew at its slowest pace in more than
a year in the second quarter on weak construction spending,
data showed on Tuesday.

There are not enough seats up for grabs to change Uri's
leading position in South Korea's 299-seat unicameral

Uri holds 142 seats, the Grand National Party has 123 while
minor parties and independents hold the remainder.

Three of the contested seats are in the Seoul metropolitan
area, and one is in the southeast part of the country.

One of the worst possible scenarios for Roh would be a GNP
victory in three of the races and a victory for the Democratic
Party in the final race. Analysts said this would indicate Uri
has lost favor among left-of-centre voters.

Analysts said the GNP candidate will likely have the upper
hand in the December 2007 election for president.

In the May local elections, the GNP had a national support
rate of 60.8 percent while Uri attracted just 18.1 percent, the
National Election Commission said.