Voters Fire Warning Shot at Government

      June 03, 2010 10:47

      Ruling and opposition candidates for mayors fought a close race in Seoul, while in Busan and South Gyeongsang Province -- traditional strongholds of the Grand National Party -- opposition candidates either won more votes than GNP candidates or were able to secure the support of some 40 percent of the public. This is seen as a widespread desire to keep the incumbent government in check.

      The GNP's defeat was even more pronounced when it comes to the votes for heads of small cities and local councilors. Voters responded to opposition calls to restrain the Lee Myung-bak administration's "monopoly" on government. Although Lee is enjoying close to 50 percent approval ratings, his administration has lost the support of the public in most parts of the country except for the traditional GNP stronghold of Daegu.

      The ruling party was powerless even in North and South Chungcheong provinces and Daejeon, where voters rallied behind the GNP in previous local elections. The GNP's defeats in those areas clearly reflected the dissatisfaction among Chungcheong residents with the government's revision of the Sejong city blueprint, which overturned former President Roh Moo-hyun's plan to create a new administrative capital, creating instead a regional business hub.

      The results were forecast early on in the campaigning. There was a lot of criticism and dissatisfaction over the revision of the Sejong city plan and the government's attempt to bulldoze through the four-rivers restoration project, while the main opposition Democratic Party's campaign pitch to offer free school lunches and other educational reform policies captured the hearts of voters. Analysts were predicting another proof of the political adage that local elections reflect voter resentment toward the government. But the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan changed the situation.

      People stand in line to cast their votes in a polling station in Jamsil, Seoul on Wednesday.

      As tensions with North Korea heightened, calls to keep the Lee administration in check appeared to lose support. But although they supported the government's response to the sinking of the Cheonan, voters also warned the Lee administration not to overdo it. Comments by key ruling party officials warning North Korea of war had adverse effects, while the opposition party's move to play up the public's fear of war worked in many parts of the country. Opinion polls showing strong support for the GNP also caused voters at the last minute to favor checks and balances.

      As conservatives rallied around the sinking of the Cheonan, they seem to have become complacent and were not active in casting their ballots, while progressive voters, feeling a sense of urgency, voted in droves at the last minute. The so-called "hidden 10 percent" of voters supporting the opposition, whose preferences were not detected by polling agencies, ended up casting their votes Wednesday afternoon and led to a 54.5 percent voter turnout, the second-highest since the 1998 local elections.

      The first anniversary of former President Roh's death had a weaker-than-expected impact on voter sentiment owing to the intensity of the Cheonan sinking. But key candidates who were Roh's proteges emerged victorious. The DP’s control of several key regions is expected to make it tough for Lee to implement his policies during the second half of his term. Although the ruling and opposition parties are expected to face off in parliament this month and again at voting booths for National Assembly by-elections at the end of July, the GNP's defeat in Chungcheong has made it difficult for the government to push ahead with its revised Sejong city plan. And the ruling camp's plans to revise the Constitution could also face roadblocks.

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