Governing party leader Park Geun-hye got an unexpected nod of approval from South Korean voters on Wednesday, as her New Frontier Party took 152 of 300 seats in a surprise win in the nation’s parliamentary elections. Park, who recently took over the party’s leadership from beleaguered President Lee Myung-bak, led the successful election campaign and is widely expected to be the party’s nominee in December’s presidential race.
The narrow but significant win of the New Frontier Party, also known as the Saenuri Party, was a blow to the opposition coalition that ran on a ticket opposing the government’s hard line on North Korea and conservative economic policies. Predicted to win early in the race, the Democratic United Party (DUP) and United Progressive Party, which won 127 and 13 seats, respectively, tried to harness voters’ discontent with South Korea’s widening wealth gap, the proliferation of large conglomerates over small businesses and Lee’s hawkish stance toward its volatile northern neighbor.
Amid low ratings and public disgust with corruption scandals linked to Lee’s administration, Park managed to bring her party back from the dead, giving it a new name and replacing several of the lawmakers running for its seats. “Park Geun-hye is the main reason behind Saenuri’s better-than-expected performance,” Yoon Pyung-joong, a professor at Hanshin University, told the Korean Herald. “Her drive to reform the party, including the name change, appears to have made a strong impression to voters.” Park, daughter of the assassinated President Park Chung-hee, has already lost once to Lee when he was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee in 2007.
The opposition, which advocated closer ties with North Korea, was probably not helped by the fact that yesterday’s vote took place in the shadow of North Korea’s imminent rocket launch. The coalition had also demanded the renegotiation of a free-trade agreement with the U.S., a move that could have complicated the U.S.-Korea relationship. But analysts say that voters were more focused on domestic concerns in this race and were especially put off by the DUP’s handling of its own campaign. After the revelation of sexist and ageist remarks made years ago by one of its candidates, Kim Yong-min, who is a co-host of a popular political podcast, the DUP apologized on Kim’s behalf and recommended he resign, but did not remove him from the race in a Seoul district, which the 37-year-old lost.
Though more people voted yesterday than in the 2008 elections, voter turnout was lower than expected in such a hotly contested race, with just over 54% of the electorate casting ballots. In past elections, a high turnout has usually favored the opposition because of younger constituents showing up to the polls. Both parties had been vying for the youth vote in the run-up to the elections, as debates over government interference in the media prompted disgruntled journalists to take their reporting online, sparking increased political engagement among young South Koreans.