SEOUL — President Kim Young Sam's ruling party lost control of South Korea's parliament in legislative elections Thursday as the key opposition party gained seats--but not as many as expected.
The results dealt a serious blow to the presidential ambitions of longtime democracy advocate Kim Dae Jung, 72, leader of the National Congress for New Politics, and it was not immediately clear whether he will still run for president next year.
Kim Dae Jung issued a statement declaring: "In this election no one is the victor. We are still the major opposition party, and we'll do our duty as such."
By taking 139 seats in the 299-seat National Assembly, down from 150 in the old parliament, Kim Young Sam's New Korea Party did well enough that it may be able to cobble together a working majority by attracting independents and some opposition legislators in a de facto coalition.
Kim Dae Jung's National Congress for New Politics took 79 seats. That was up from 55 in the old parliament, but the party had expected to win at least 90 seats and hoped for 100.
The ruling party's election prospects had suffered an apparent setback in March when a corruption scandal erupted involving a top presidential aide. But North Korea's recent violations of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War gave the president the opportunity to make national security a key campaign issue. Polls in recent days showed a shift of conservative voters to the ruling party.
A political cartoon in today's Hankyoreh newspaper shows an exultant South Korean president embracing a confused-looking North Korean soldier as ruling party campaigners leap with joy and opposition leaders look on in frustration and anger.
"We are not happy," Chung Hee Kyung, co-chairman of the National Congress campaign, said after it became clear that two party vice presidents and the party's top spokesman had lost in district voting. "One of the very shocking facts is that very important members of our party are losing."
Chung blamed the defeats on "psychological warfare" directed at her party by the government through the past week's national security scare and heavy spending by the ruling party targeted at districts where key opposition leaders were running.
Kim Dae Jung had chosen to list himself 14th in his party's proportional representation list, but the National Congress won only enough votes for 13 seats. Kim thus suffers the political embarrassment of being left out of the next National Assembly.
Chung insisted the problem would not knock Kim out of next year's presidential race although some observers felt otherwise. "I don't think his decision to run or not depends on his seat in the congress," she said. "I think Kim Dae Jung will run if he feels that conditions for a fair election are guaranteed."
District elections decided 253 seats; 46 were filled by proportional representation, based on the percentage of votes won by each party.
The vote leaves a deep-seated political rivalry between Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung unchanged. If Kim Dae Jung runs in next year's presidential election, he is expected to face a candidate backed by Kim Young Sam, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term.
If Kim Young Sam woos enough parliamentary support, and thus does not face a strongly hostile legislature, the election will have left his power largely intact for the nearly two years remaining in his term. If he fails to achieve a working majority in the near future, his ability to act will be severely curtailed.
The United Liberal Democrats, headed by conservative leader Kim Jong Pil, 70, won 50 seats. The Democratic Party won 15 seats, and independent candidates won 16. Voter turnout was 64%, the lowest in the nation's history.
Support for each of the three main parties was largely regional. Most voters in the southeastern Pusan and Kyongsang areas backed the ruling party. The southwestern Cholla region went for the opposition National Congress, and the central Choong-chong region backed the United Liberal Democrats. Domination of South Korean politics by regional rivalries and the famous "three Kims" who head each main party thus is likely to continue.
Kim Young Sam is expected to try to induce as many independents as possible to join the ruling party. He might also work out an alliance with the Democratic Party or with some of its members.
But if all legislators from the three opposition parties plus most independents unite against the ruling party, they could take away much of Kim Young Sam's power. He also faces the possible threat of a National Assembly inquiry into the financing of his 1992 election campaign in which the ruling party is widely suspected of having exceeded legal spending limits.
Former Prime Minister Lee Hoi Chang, 60, a reformer with a "Mr. Clean" reputation, is a leading contender to win the president's support as his successor.