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Indeed, a confidence vote for Roh

Apr 15,2004
Voters chose the new and untested over the old and somewhat tattered in yesterday’s legislative elections.
By granting Our Open Party a majority in the National Assembly, Korean voters opted emphatically to continue on the reform path that began with the election of Roh Moo-hyun as president in December 2002. Equally significantly, Our Open Party’s showing demonstrates that the impeached president is in the good graces of Korea’s electorate, even though his fate rests officially in the hands of the Constitutional Court. Mr. Roh has repeatedly said that he would consider Our Open Party’s electoral performance a mandate. He even pledged that he would retire from politics if Our Open Party did poorly. That drama seemed to resonate with voters who have said, in effect, that they want stability, despite Mr. Roh’s earlier poor job ratings.
Although he has yet formally joined Our Open Party, his endorsements propelled the party, that splintered from the Millennium Democrats last year, from 49 seats in the outgoing Assembly to a majority in the new one.
The ride was not entirely smooth. The party’s chairman, Chung Dong-young, alienated many older voters by suggesting that they need not vote, a gaffe that forced his resignation as the party’s election campaign manager on Tuesday. He also resigned as a candidate for one of his party’s proportional representation seats, which he could have won easily.
His party did well in the capital area, where regional ties are weak.
Korea’s middle-aged voters, especially those in their 40s, also contributed to a weakening of the traditional regional differences in Korean politics. Although many of those voters said Mr. Chung’s barb at older voters had irritated them, in the end they opted in large numbers for the “reform” call of Our Open Party. Their message includes vague but compelling calls for a “more equal” relationship with Korea’s virtual big brother, the United States.
This age group, which grew up under authoritarian regimes and then witnessed the 1980s’ messy turn to democracy, seemed unfazed by another change that they seemed to hope would consolidate democracy here.
Neither the Grand National Party’s last minute-pitch in its traditional bastion, the Gyeongsang provinces, nor the Millennium Democratic Party’s stumping in its heartlands of Gwangju and the surrounding Jeolla provinces, could slow the new party.
The Millennium Democratic Party and the United Liberal Democrats, whose images were both tainted by their association with “boss politics,” slipped badly and will probably wither away as their elected legislators look for greener pastures. But the Democratic Labor Party, which styles itself as the radical left, won its first seats, about nine, in the Assembly.
The effect of the vote on the Constitutional Court’s deliberations on Mr. Roh’s impeachment is unclear. Although nominally insulated from politics, the rousing vote of confidence in Mr. Roh’s administration has obviously been noted by the judges. The court has five more months to make its decision.
The election has almost certainly not ushered in an era of stable political alignments, however, where the defection of a legislator to another party is rare. The president’s patronage power will probably lead disaffected legislators to Our Open Party - which is also far from monolithic. One prominent party campaigner has called for a purge of less than reform-minded members. Another factor will be investigations into violations of campaign laws, which will probably result in by-elections in coming months.


by Kim Ji-soo


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