- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

SEOUL — South Korea’s governing Uri Party suffered a crushing defeat in local elections yesterday, early vote tallies showed, signaling widespread dissatisfaction with the leadership.

Early vote counts by the National Electoral Commission found the conservative opposition Grand National Party taking 12 of 16 key posts. These included the mayoral races for Seoul and Busan, South Korea’s largest cities, and the governorship of Gyeonggi, the province surrounding the capital.

Uri was leading in only one high-profile race, the preliminary tallies showed. Voters were to decide 16 mayoral and provincial governor posts as well as the leaderships of 230 administrative units and seats on 3,621 local councils.

The rout is expected to further weaken President Roh Moo-hyun’s government, whose popularity has eroded steadily on public perceptions that it failed to boost the economy and mismanaged foreign affairs.

Analysts, however, cautioned that the results are not necessarily a precursor of the outcome of the presidential election next year or of National Assembly elections in 2008.

“The opposition always does well in local elections, but then they lose the big one,” said professor Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University. “Even a landslide is not an indication that they are the favorite for the presidential elections.”

The Grand National Party has 125 seats in the 297-seat unicameral National Assembly; Uri holds 142 seats.

Even though the results were widely predicted, the ruling camp was glum.

“We humbly accept the voters’ decision,” Uri Party Chairman Chung Dong-young, a close confidant of Mr. Roh’s and a presidential hopeful, said on television. “I feel tremendous responsibility as party head.”

The Uri Party suffered a setback May 20 when the leader of the Grand National Party, Park Geun-hye, was slashed in the face by a man wielding a box cutter. Although her attacker, a habitual criminal, was found unconnected to any political party, surveys found that the attack generated widespread voter sympathy for Mrs. Park, who required 60 stitches and may have influenced swing voters.

Although the local elections, which take place every four years, are unlikely to alter Seoul’s national or international politics, the result may force a shake-up in the Uri Party.

Mr. Roh and Uri have strained traditional ties with Washington by engaging North Korea. In a statement carried by its official mouthpiece, the Korea Central News Agency, Pyongyang called on South Koreans not to vote for the opposition.

The left-leaning Uri has stressed wealth distribution and attempted to subdue real estate prices. These domestic policies have alienated the middle class and the well-to-do, analysts say.

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