(ATTN: UPDATES with more details; CHANGES slug, headline, lead; ADDS byline)
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, July 28 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) won a surprise victory in Wednesday's legislative by-elections, a result expected to boost President Lee Myung-bak's policy initiatives in the second half of his five-year term.
GNP candidates swept five of the eight parliamentary seats contested in the by-elections, recovering from a humiliating defeat in last month's local elections, while the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) won three.
The results were a stronger-than-expected showing for the ruling camp because all pre-election surveys predicted that Lee's party would win no more than two races amid declining popularity of the president and his administration.
Lee Jae-oh, one of the president's most trusted advisers, defeated the DP's Chang Sang who entered the race in Seoul's Eunpyeong B district as a unified opposition candidate.
In another hotly contested race in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province, Yoon Jin-shik, who until two months ago served as chief presidential policy secretary, emerged as the winner. He also defeated a unified opposition candidate.
Also emerging the winner in adjacent South Chungcheong Province was another GNP candidate Kim Ho-yeon, former chairman of ice cream maker Binggrae Co. Voters in the central provinces were previously known unhappy with President Lee's unsuccessful push to kill the previous government's plan to relocate several central government agencies out of Seoul to a new town to be built in the region.
The GNP's electoral triumph could strengthen Lee's grip on power in the second half of his term that ends in early 2013 and increase support for his projects such as a costly river refurbishing scheme.
The government's controversial four-river project is a key fodder for opposition candidates who formed an alliance ahead of Wednesday's vote.
Critics question the usefulness of the river refurbishing project, which would require as much as 22 trillion won (US$18.2 billion). The government defends it as ensuring a stable supply of clean water and helping prevent floods, but opposition parties, joined by environmentalists and some religious groups, argue that it will wreak ecological havoc.
Lee also wants to push policies for less-privileged people and amend the Constitution in the remainder of his presidency.
In Wednesday's by-elections also viewed as a prelude to the 2012 presidential and parliamentary polls, the GNP won two more seats in Incheon, west of Seoul, and Gangwon province. The DP took a total of three -- two in Gangwon Province and one in its stronghold southeastern city of Gwangju.
DP's winners are Park Wu-sun, Choe Jong-won and Jang Byeong-wan who ran in Wonju and Taebaek, both of Gangwon Province and Gwangju, respectively.
The final voter turnout reached 34.1 percent, nearly 10 percentage points higher than 24.8 percent recorded in the by-elections held in July 2006, the election body said.
The by-elections were called to fill seats that have been vacated by resignations or court conviction of as many lawmakers in the past year.
Currently, the GNP controls 167 seats in the 299-member parliament, as opposed to 84 by the DP.
The by-elections come less than two months after the Lee government suffered a big setback in June 2 local elections. The ruling party lost nearly half of the mayoral and gubernatorial races contested.
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