GNP stunned by outcome of Seoul mayoral election

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GNP stunned by outcome of Seoul mayoral election

The landslide victory by liberal independent Park Won-soon in the Seoul mayoral by-election set off a tsunami in the country’s political arena as the conservative ruling party went into crisis mode and the largest opposition party began contemplating a consolidation of liberal parties.

The election will have an overpowering influence on the 2012 presidential race, as appealing to young, working-class voters frustrated with conventional party politics emerged as a game changer.

In Wednesday’s race, Park won 53.4 percent of the votes and challenger Na Kyung-won of the ruling Grand National Party won 46.2 percent, the National Election Commission said. Voter turnout was 48.6 percent.

While the GNP lost the key race in Seoul by a wide margin of 7.2 percentage points, it won victories in other by-elections. Of the other 11 races nationwide to select new local government heads, the GNP fielded eight candidates and they all won.

“The people have defeated the powers that be and their voting defeated an old era,” Park said yesterday in a press conference, appreciating the liberal opposition parties and the civic community.

He also expressed his appreciation for the support of the overnight liberal political star, software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo. “I will keep this relationship of trust in the future,” Park said. Public opinion polls show Ahn, a nonpolitician, is a popular favorite for the presidential election 14 months from now.

Park, however, did not say clearly say whether he will join the Democratic Party or not. “I owe a big debt to the DP,” Park said. “I believe the DP will continue playing the role of big brother of the liberals to lead reform, and we will work together.”

Crisis for GNP, administration

The defeat in the Seoul race threw the Grand National leadership and its chairman, Representative Hong Joon-pyo, into crisis.

“The people used the whip of hope, love and hate on the GNP through this election,” Hong said. “We will work further to uphold the people’s will. Now the election is over, we will overcome our shortcomings and be reborn as a political party of ‘digital nomads’ to emphasize communication and empathy.”

(The GNP’s loss came from disenchantment from voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and many of them were rallied to vote via social networking services. Young people with active lives on the Internet are sometimes called digital nomads.)

Hong pledged to reform the party, pay more attention to the capital region and better communicate with voters in their 20s and 30s.

While it has become a tradition in Korean politics for party leadership to resign after an election defeat, Hong did not mention the possibility. On Wednesday night, Hong said the results of the by-elections were not necessarily a GNP defeat, although it lost the mayor race in Seoul. “It was not a victory or a defeat,” he said.

The GNP won elections for district office heads in its strongholds of Busan and Daegu in addition to victories in Gangwon and both North and South Chungcheong. The GNP also won the by-election in the Yangcheon District of Seoul.

Seven of the eight victories came in districts where the predecessors were either independents or Democrats.

GNP spokesman Kim Gi-hyeon said the victories in local elections were a ray of hope for the party looking ahead to next year’s legislative and presidential elections.

President Lee Myung-bak said yesterday that he accepts the outcome with a heavy heart. “I will particularly remember the young generation’s message shown in this election,” Lee was quoted as saying by his spokesman Park Jeong-ha.

A senior Blue House official also said yesterday that the administration will pay more attention to young members of society, particularly those with economic difficulties.

Impact on the presidential race

Park’s victory also gave a seismic jolt to the presidential aspirations of Representative Park Geun-hye, former GNP chairwoman. She has been the frontrunner in next year’s presidential election, but the defeat in Seoul indicated that the race may not be easy.

With her influence over conservative voters, Park joined the GNP’s campaign nationwide for the by-elections, and her power was proven in areas outside Seoul.

But even with Park’s support, GNP mayoral candidate Na was extremely unpopular among voters in their 20s and 30s in Seoul.

Park, a daughter of former President Park Chung Hee, is favored by conservatives and older voters, but her unpopularity among the young was a reason she lost the 2007 presidential primary to Lee Myung-bak.

During a visit to Gwangju yesterday to attend a book publishing event, Park said solemnly that she will work harder to communicate with the people. “I realized that the people are very angry at the politicians,” she said. “Unless the politicians repent and change, there will be no future.”

She attributed Na’s defeat to people’s distrust in politics, a feeling of betrayal over broken promises and dissatisfaction about the government’s approach to livelihood issues. Asked about the GNP’s unpopularity among voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Park played down the significance of age.

“Of course there are differences among the age groups, but I think the people’s feeling is the same,” Park said.

She also rejected the idea that she was once unbeatable but now isn’t.

“There is no such idea of an invincible candidate,” she said. “For Seoul, the people’s lives were just too tough, and distrust was too deep, and this was about that.”

The young, working-class voters’ frustration with conventional party politics is expected to propel Ahn Cheol-soo into the presidential race against Park Geun-hye. In an exit poll jointly conducted by three broadcasters, KBS, SBS and MBC, 28.6 percent of the people who voted for Park Won-soon said they did so because they support Ahn.

Ahn has had a meteoric rise as a possible presidential candidate after he was rumored to be thinking of running for Seoul mayor, and then backed Park Won-soon instead. For the first time since 2008, Park Geun-hye was knocked from her frontrunner status in polls by Ahn.

Ahn told reporters yesterday he wants the new mayor to understand the feelings of the supporters of the defeated Na. “I want him to be a mayor for the weak,” Ahn said.

He refused to say whether he will enter politics, rejecting speculation that he would create a political party of his own and run in the April general election.

Reform of the Democratic Party

Although the liberal independent Park won the Seoul mayoral race with the DP’s backing, the Democrats expressed concerns that their by-election candidates only won in the Jeolla region, the party’s traditional stronghold. “I feel responsible for defeats in many places,” DP Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu said. “I am very proud that the DP facilitated Park’s victory, but I also feel extremely embarrassed for having failed to field a candidate to represent the DP.”

Sohn stressed once again the importance of uniting the liberals ahead of next year’s elections. “We will walk the path of self-reform and achieve the consolidation of the liberals,” said Sohn.

Discussions to merge the DP with smaller progressive parties including the Democratic Labor Party and the People’s Participation Party have taken place in the past, but no tangible progress was made.

Mayor Park yesterday reaffirmed his support for Sohn’s initiative to unite the liberals. “A new era should be opened and a new wind should be absorbed by forming an alliance with the DP at the center,” he said. “The DP is capable of embracing the value of change and unity ahead of the next year’s elections, and I will join the process.”


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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