SEOUL — Seoul's special election for mayor on Wednesday yielded a resounding defeat for the conservative ruling party's candidate in a political contest widely seen as a harbinger for parliamentary elections in April and the presidential race in December 2012.
Political newcomer Park Won-soon, 55, received more than 53 percent of the vote to defeat former judge Na Kyung-won, 47, of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) in their contest to become mayor of South Korea's capital city.
In televised comments just before midnight, Ms. Na, perhaps sensing imminent defeat, said: "If I am beaten, I will reflect deeply and will congratulate the new mayor."
Mr. Park, a social activist and former lawyer who founded a national charity group, has no party affiliation. He was nominated in a primary election held among opposition parties and is supported by the Democratic Party (DP), the largest opposition group.
The special election was called after Mayor Oh Se-hoon of the GNP resigned, following a losing struggle with liberal city council members over welfare issues.
"It's the prequel to the big elections next year in that the parties are aligning themselves and establishing candidates," said Michael Breen, author of "The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies."
"In some regards, this is a proxy for the presidential candidates, though it is a local election."
Key figures in both major parties have expended political capital. The GNP's likeliest presidential candidate, Park Geun-hye, has appeared alongside Ms. Na, while DP leader Sohn Hak-kyu has joined Mr. Park on the campaign trail.
A key battleground in the mayoral race was social welfare, with Ms. Na seen as representing the well-to-do and Mr. Park championing the disadvantaged.
South Korea is expected to see annual GDP growth approaching 4 percent this year, and banks and exporters are enjoying large profits. However rampant inflation, high rents and heavy household debt are burdening many families.
Seoul voters who spoke to The Washington Times appeared split along age and ideological line. Ms. Na, the younger candidate, enjoyed support from older voters who backed her conservative positions; the older Mr. Park appealed to younger, more liberal voters.
"I think Park is better than Na," said university student JI-Min Son, 24. "Park has a philosophy which is for a better world, an ideal world."
In addition, lack of experience also worked in Mr. Park's favor among voters disenchanted with professional politicians.
"When Na talks in public, I can see from her action that she is somebody made up -- a typical Korean politician," said housewife Chun Aurum, 26. "Park is not really a politician. He made the Beautiful Store [charity], and I quite admire him."
Ms. Na's supporters cited her stability.
"Na is stable. She is the core party. She is much safer," said Min Byung-chae, 75, a retired businessman. "The other guy's background is unclear. For me, he is a communist."
The mayoral election may be a blow to the GNP, it is hardly a vote of confidence for the DP. Mr. Park is officially an independent.
"If Na wins, you can say it is the same-old, same-old," Tom Coyner, distributor of the Korean Economic Reader newsletter, said before the final vote tally. "If Park wins, given the fact that he stands clear of direct political affiliation, it is a refutation of the old Korean political order."
Meanwhile, a close associate of Mr. Park, Ahn Cheol-soo, is surrounded by media rumors that he will run as an independent presidential candidate.
Mr. Ahn is a rarity in South Korea: The founder of the nation's leading antivirus software company, AhnLab, he is unconnected to the giant conglomerates that dominate the economy.