Despite public anger at the government’s handling of the Sewol disaster and President Park’s approval ratings faltering, the ruling party won—and won big—in yesterday’s by-election, winning in 11 of 15 races, including all but one seat in the greater Seoul area.
This gives the Saenuri Party an absolute majority in the 300-seat National Assembly and leaves a lot of observers—me included—scratching their heads.
The biggest surprise of the day happened in Suncheon/Gokseong, where the Saenuri Party’s Lee Jung-hyun became the first conservative in over two decades to win in Gwangju/Jeollanam-do:
The most unexpected outcome came from a race in Suncheon and Gokseong in South Jeolla, where former senior presidential secretary Lee Jung-hyun of the Saenuri defeated NPAD candidate Suh Gab-won, a loyalist to former President Roh Moo-hyun. Lee’s victory marked the first time for 26 years that a conservative party candidate was elected in South Jeolla, a traditional opposition stronghold, and is seen as a meaningful step in breaking the thick layer of regionalism in Korean politics.
For Lee, three times are a charm:
His victory came after two previous failed attempts in the province. In the 2004 general election, he received a miniscule 1.03% of the vote but surprised political observers in 2012 by garnering 39.7%.
For those keeping score at home, it’s only been 18 years since a conservative won in Jeollabuk-do—Kang Hyun-wook won in one of Gunsan’s electoral districts in 1996.
The National Assembly also welcomes back Na Kyung-won, whose fortunes look better than they did when she lost to Park Won-soon in the Seoul’s mayor race in 2011, and a damn sight better than when she dropped out of the 2012 general election after it turned out her husband—a judge—had asked another judge to indict a netizen on charges of defaming his wife (to be fair to Na, she was the victim of some pretty bad defaming in the Seoul race, albeit at the hands of folk not related to this case).
Yonhap basically says this was an election the Saenuri couldn’t win and the NPAD couldn’t lose… and yet they did. The news agency blames the opposition for opting to run on the Sewol tragedy rather than, say, present any meaningful policy alternatives. If you read Korean, the Chosun Ilbo’s editorial lists pretty much everything the opposition did wrong. It’s not pretty—my personal favorite is the opposition playing up conspiracy theories regarding the corpse of Yoo Byung-eun.
Anyway, the NPAD’s two co-heads, Ahn Cheol-soo and Kim Han-gil, are resigning, as is the party’s entire supreme council.