President Kim Dae-jung’s ruling party was in shock Friday after suffering a humiliating defeat in South Korean local elections amid growing public discontent with economic difficulties and policy failures.
By-elections were held in 22 constituencies across the country on Thursday to elect local administration heads and provincial assemblies.
The result has been scrutinized in detail as the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) and opposition Grand National Party (GNP) jostle for the advantage ahead of presidential elections next year.
Kim Dae-jung must stand down as head of state next year but a slump in his opinion poll ratings in recent months — despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation with North Korea — was reflected in the election result.
Of the seven key elections for city mayors and a district head, the ruling MDP lost in all four constituencies where it fielded candidates. The GNP won four, including the hotly-contested Eunpyong district in Seoul.
Independents triumphed in Kunsan and Imshil, North Cholla Province, which has in the past thrown its weight behind the MDP.
The United Liberal Democrats, the coalition partner of the ruling party, won in Nonsan City, where the two allies fielded a unified candidate.
Results of the other 15 by-elections for local assemblies marked strong regionalism, with the southwestern part of the country backing the MDP. Southeastern provinces supported the opposition GNP.
At a party meeting, MDP chairman Kim Joong-kwon said: “I feel gravely responsible, as not a single candidate from our party was elected.
“However, we sincerely hope this will be an opportunity for self reflection on our part, as we overcome the shock to serve the public and assume full responsibility as the party in power.”
He added: “We hope we will be able to convert this setback into an opportunity, by humbly serving the people and uniting around President Kim Dae-jung.”
A GNP spokesman said: “The people turned their back on the ruling party and the government. The ruling party and the government must humbly accept the election results, which reflected people’s anger over policy failures.”
Kim Dae-jung’s government successfully extricated the country from a severe economic crisis triggered by the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
But the government, which only has a working majority in parliament because of its alliance, has been attacked by workers and business firms, and is caught between reformists and the conservative establishment and between other groups with conflicting interests.