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Opposition Delivers Blow to S. Korean Ruling Party

Elections: The majority of local and regional races go to conservatives as the gap between the two presidential front-runners vanishes.


SEOUL — In a crushing defeat for President Kim Dae Jung, South Korean voters Thursday handed the conservative opposition a landslide victory in local elections held around the country.

Results released this morning showed the Grand National Party winning a majority of races in 11 out of 16 districts, in an election to fill more than 4,400 mayoral, gubernatorial and city council positions.

The lopsided results set the stage for a strong bid by the conservatives to win the far more important presidential election scheduled for Dec. 19.

Lee Hoi Chang of the GNP is running in a virtual dead heat in polls for that race with human-rights lawyer Roh Mu Hyun, the candidate of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party.

Until recently, Roh was more than 20 percentage points ahead of his conservative challenger in the polls, but the arrest last month of Kim's youngest son on corruption charges and other scandals swirling around the presidency have undermined the credibility of the ruling liberals.

"We humbly accept the results," Roh said in a statement this morning. He said he would ask the ruling liberals to reconfirm his selection as the party's candidate for president.

"This election reconfirms that voters leave you if you mismanage national affairs," Lee said Thursday night after hearing the results of exit polls.

It had been widely anticipated that the conservatives would prevail in the local elections, but they did far better than expected.

In the most important race, GNP candidate Lee Myung Bak was elected mayor of Seoul. The 61-year-old former construction executive at the giant Hyundai conglomerate ran against a 38-year-old former student activist, Kim Min Seok, who was angling to become the capital's youngest mayor.

The conservative opposition party captured five of nine provincial governorships, as well as mayoral races in six of seven major cities. In fact, the ruling liberals won only in their party's traditional power bases in the southwest.

To the extent that the elections were a contest between experience and youth, the former easily prevailed.

Young voters who had been expected to support the youthful candidates put up by the Millennium Democratic Party refrained from voting, repelled by the corruption scandals and distracted by the World Cup soccer tournament that is being held in South Korea and Japan. Voter turnout was about 48%, a record low for the nation.

"This is really a political crisis for them," said political scientist Hahn Sung Deuk at Korea University, referring to the ruling liberals.

He predicted that Roh would dramatically restructure the party so as to distance himself from President Kim. The South Korean leader resigned as head of the party last year and as a member last month in order to boost its electoral prospects.

Although the 77-year-old former dissident is a Nobel Peace laureate and an acclaimed figure in international politics, his popularity as president has crumbled at home because of the scandals in his government and disappointment that more was not achieved through his hallmark "sunshine" policy of engagement with North Korea.

If the conservatives win the presidency in December, they are expected to pursue dialogue with North Korea as well, but most likely at a slower pace than Kim.

But the conservatives are not gloating yet, knowing that the South Korean electorate is notoriously fickle and the presidential vote is still six months away.

"It is too early to celebrate," said Park Won Hong, a GNP lawmaker. "Historically, Korean people do a balancing act. When one party wins a landslide in one election, they vote for the others in the next."

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