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     May 31, 2006
Korea's ruling party heads for big defeat
By Bruce Klingner

South Korea's ruling Uri Party is expected to suffer another humiliating loss during Wednesday's local elections, accelerating the decline in President Roh Moo-hyun's political influence and making a party split more likely by year's end.

Party chairman Chung Dong-yong will be held responsible for the loss, weakening his candidacy for the December 2007 presidential election. Chung could even be forced to resign, as his predecessor Moon Hee-sang did after poor Uri Party results in the 2005 by-elections.

The main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) should sweep the majority of the electoral contests, improving the presidential

candidacy hopes of both the party chairwoman, Park Geun-hye, and her party rival, Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak.

Despite serving as a litmus test for the political parties, the
elections will not, however, alter the current balance of power in the National Assembly as no national seats are being contested. That means the bitter partisanship seen in recent months will continue, impeding progress on controversial but valuable legislation, including tax policy, corporate reform and foreign investment.

On Wednesday, South Korean voters will select local-level political positions, including nine provincial governors, seven metropolitan mayors, 232 heads of autonomous administrative units, and 3,631 members of local councils. Of these, the selection of the chief executives of the 16 provinces and major cities will have the greatest impact on the relative strengths of the political parties.

These elections are significant because they provide a mid-term referendum on Roh and the ruling party. Poor 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. An emboldened GNP will intensify its obstructionist tactics in the National Assembly, seeking to undermine the ruling party's progressive agenda.

The GNP is unlikely, however, to provide a coherent alternative policy strategy, leaving the initiative to a weakened Uri Party. President Roh, eager to secure a legacy despite declining support for the ruling party, may resort to nationalist themes such as securing a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

GNP support is strong and growing
South Korean polls consistently show the GNP with twice the level of public support as the Uri Party. Public support for the GNP rose even further because of a sympathetic response to the May 20 attack on chairwoman Park by a knife-wielding assailant. The GNP has capitalized on Roh's low approval ratings by framing the elections as a referendum on his and the central government's inability to govern.

The Uri Party sought to deflect criticism by depicting the elections as a "judgment on local governments", highlighting corruption allegations against 85% of local GNP incumbents. The Uri campaign failed to resonate with the populace, however, and a poll late last month by Munhwa Ilbo showed that more than half of the voters who supported the Uri Party in the 2004 general elections planned to switch their support to opposition parties.

In a desperate attempt to reverse the decline in its chances, Uri Party leader Chung apologized in mid-May for the party's self-righteous attitude and inadequacy. Chung admitted the party had failed to understand what the public wanted, having focused on "time-consuming internal discord". Chung convened an emergency meeting on May 23 amid Uri Party predictions it could lose 90% of all local political contests.

The GNP will likely capture 11 or possibly 12 of the 16 provinces and major cities and carry the country except for the traditional liberal stronghold in South Korea's southwestern provinces. The GNP will win the provinces of Kangwon, Kyonggi, North Chungchon, South Chungchon, North Kyongsang and South Kyongsang as well as the cities of Seoul, Incheon, Daegu, Ulsan and Busan. The Uri Party will likely win only North Cholla province and the city of Taejon, while the Democratic Party will win South Cholla province, and an independent candidate may capture Cheju island.

Undecided voters could swing several districts
A May 21 poll by Donga Ilbo and the Korea Research Center showed two possible additional GNP victories. GNP candidate Hyun Myung-kwan had virtually eliminated the lead of independent candidate Kim Tae-hwan in Cheju, potentially giving the GNP a 12th victory. Even more devastating for the Uri Party would be the loss of Taejon city, long considered a secure ruling-party stronghold. The poll, taken after the attack on Park attack, showed that GNP candidate Park Seoung-hyo was, for the first time, ahead of Uri candidate Yum Hong-chul. Taejon likely remains a long shot for the GNP, however.

The Uri Party would claim a sort of victory if it were able to secure a prize in the capital region (Seoul, Incheon, or Kyonggi province), the southwest region (Kwangju or South Cholla province) or either North or South Chungchong province. A strong showing in the Cholla provinces in the final run-up to the election could influence the capital region, since they are the traditional swing states in national elections.

The Uri candidate remains an underdog in each of these races, however. Former justice minister Kang Kum-sil, who sought to become the first female mayor of Seoul, initially generated significant media buzz and Uri Party hopes for victory, but her star has since faded and she trails her GNP counterpart by 15 percentage points.

The ruling party is handicapped by Roh's and the party's low popularity, public perceptions that it has failed to respond to electorate interests, internal factionalism, competition with the Democratic Party for progressive voters, and low voter turnout. Young voters, who are Uri Party's support base, tend to stay home on local-election days, whereas older voters, who favor the GNP, vote in large numbers.

Even some Uri candidates are trying to distance themselves from the party. Seoul mayoral candidate Kang blamed her falling popularity on the Uri Party and chairman Chung for failing to articulate a clear economic policy. A poll late last month by the Joongang Ilbo showed that the most important issue for respondents was "ensuring economic growth", with the GNP viewed most positively on economic issues.

The 2007 political landscape
A strong showing in the May 31 elections will not ensure a GNP victory in the 2007 presidential election. Although younger, progressive voters, the mainstay of the Uri Party, tend to eschew local elections, they vote in higher numbers during presidential elections. During the 2002 presidential campaign, the GNP had what looked like an insurmountable lead of 52% to 29% over the Uri Party (then called the Millennium Democratic Party), only to go on to lose the election. Local elections also favor the GNP in that the "anti-conservative" vote is split among several progressive parties whereas, in the presidential race, these factions may unite behind a single candidate, in either a coalition or a single party.

But the local elections are still a high-stakes leadership test for both party chairs. Either Chung Dong-young and Park Geun-hye could lose his or her position, dashing their presidential hopes if their party fails to meet election expectations. A better-than-expected victory for Park could propel her past party rival Lee Myung-bak and former prime minister Goh Kun, both of whom lead her in most presidential surveys.

Both the GNP and the Uri Party will seek to form coalitions with other parties to improve their potential for winning the presidential election even if the alliance includes ideologically opposed partners. No party has won a presidential campaign by itself since 1987. The most likely coalition would be the Uri Party (or the anti-Roh faction in the likelihood of a formal Uri Party split) merging with the Democratic and People First parties to create a strong Cholla- and Chungchong-based force.

The GNP, which recently merged with the United Liberal Democrats, would have strong support from Kangwon and Kyongsang provinces, repeating the east-west divide of the 2002 election. If the Uri Party does better than expected, Chung Dong-young may lead this coalition. But if, as is more likely, the Uri Party does poorly and splits, then former prime minister Goh Kun would be the presidential candidate. Current polls show a strong three-way presidential race among Goh Kun, GNP chairwoman Park Geun-hye and Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak.

Bruce Klingner is the Korea analyst for Eurasia Group, the world's largest political risk consultancy. The views expressed herein are his own. His areas of expertise are national security, political, military and economic affairs in Korea, China and Japan. He can be reached at klingner@eurasiagroup.net.

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