By Sarah Hong
South Korea held a by-election for positions in the National Assembly on July 30 after several representatives stepped down to run in the June 4 local elections. In total, 15 seats were up for grabs, making this the largest by-election in the nation’s history. The only seat contested in Seoul was Dongjak-B District for which former Seoul mayoral candidate, Na Kyung-won of the Saenuri Party, and Roe Hae-chan of the Justice Party competed. The election was widely regarded as a referendum on the Park administration due to the large scale.
After the June 4 elections showed a balanced result between the ruling party (Saenuri) and the main opposition party, New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), the landslide victory of the Saenuri Party comes as quite a surprise. Taking 11 of the 15 contested seats, Saenuri has become the majority party in the National Assembly, now holding 158 of 300 seats. Saenuri held 147 seats in the National Assembly before the election. The NPAD went from holding 126 seats before the election to holding 130 afterwards.
Several members of the various opposition candidates dropped out of the race last minute with the hope that their potential votes would go to the remaining opposition candidate. This move paid off for the opposition party in Suwon-D district of Gyeonggi Province but proved futile in Seoul Dongjak-B district and Suwon-C district.
Most notably, Saenuri candidate Lee Jung-hyun won the seat for the South Jeolla Province Suncheon, Gokseong County. A traditionally liberal province, South Jeolla has never had a conservative candidate elected since the establishment of its constituency in 1988. Before running for the National Assembly seat, Lee was the senior secretary to the president for public relations under President Park. Some analysts argued that Lee’s victory is a sign that regionalism is playing a lesser role in how people vote while others are skeptical that Lee’s victory is a result of regionalism’s eroding force. Constituents have expressed discontent in the way that liberal candidates put less effort into winning the peoples’ votes due to the strong tradition of liberal candidates being a shoo-in for victory in the region.
The voter turnout was also noteworthy. Early voting began on July 25 and had a voter turnout of nearly 8 percent according to the National Election Commission. This figure is relatively high for by-election early voting. However, the voter turnout for the regular voting was 32.9 percent — noticeably lower than the voter turnout rate for the April 24, 2013 by-election, which had a voter turnout of 41.3 percent.
As a result of the Saenuri Party’s overwhelming victory, NPAD co-chairmen Ahn Cheol-soo and Kim Han-gil have offered to resign on July 31, stating that they have not fulfilled their duties as the leaders of the party. Nevertheless, despite Saenuri’s strong success, it is difficult to conclude that the ruling party was heavily favored over the opposition parties. The margins of victory for the winners were mostly slightly over 50 percent with the exception of the NPAD candidates from the strongly liberal South Jeolla Province (excluding Lee Jung-hyun as mentioned above) and the Saeunuri candidates from Pusan and North Chungcheong Province who both won with well over 60 percent of the votes.
However, the strong victory for the Saenuri Party may shed a positive light on President Park’s administration amid record low approval ratings following the Sewol ferry sinking and the subsequent political setback over cabinet appointments. This will likely to give a boost to the administration to push through a number of domestic agenda and potential bill for government reform and economic stimulus in the National Assembly.