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(New Year Special) N. Korea, welfare to dominate S. Korean elections in 2012

All Headlines 09:00 December 28, 2011

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea heads into its biggest election season in two decades in 2012 as Asia's fourth-largest economy prepares to select a new parliament and a new president with a widening income gap and rising geopolitical risks involving the leadership change in North Korea.

The general elections take place in April to change the 299-member unicameral National Assembly, and a presidential vote in December will select a successor to President Lee Myung-bak, who is barred from seeking re-election by law.

It is the first time in two decades that the nation will holds both major polls in the same year.

Experts say the economic struggles of the middle class will be a key campaign issue, along with the rising geopolitical risks on the Korean Peninsula after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

"Voters will intensively question candidates whether they are ready to handle the crisis situations inside and outside the country," said Hong Hyung-sik, director of the polling agency Hangil Research. "If economic inequality worsens, people will demand more support from the government. If something happens in North Korea, conservatives are likely to unite to handle the crisis situation."

In a country where 50 million population live in the last remaining bastion of the Cold War, the impoverished neighbor with nuclear weapons ambitions has played a big part in the domestic politics and major votes in the past.

In the wake of the abrupt death of the North's leader, people now question whether the late Kim's inexperienced successor, Jong-un, will be able to gain firm control of the impoverished nation of 24 million.

While relations between rival Koreas plunged to one of their lowest levels in decades under the conservative Lee administration that has taken a hard-line approach on North Korea, a liberal rule would signal a more conciliatory stance toward the communist state.

After registering their preliminary candidacy in early December, politicians and prominent figures are gearing up for campaigns to get nominations in each party's strongholds -- the southeastern region favoring the conservative ruling party while the southwest supports the left-leaning opposition party.

While rising eurozone debt problems and weakening growth in major economies cast doubts over the export-dependent Korean economy, experts say Korean voters will care more about a social safety net they can rely on in times of economic uncertainty.

"The new calls reflect that people learned from past experience that good economic indicators don't actually improve their living standard if big businesses' record profits do not trickle down to the bottom," said Shin Yul, a politics professor at Myeongji University.

Calls for expanded welfare benefits are louder in the Seoul metropolitan area where the middle class are feeling the crunch of soaring home rental prices. In addition, many college graduates in the nation's educational hub are only able to find temporary positions despite costly tuition fees.

Their deepening woes, however, have largely been ignored by politicians, who often have become mired in bitter internal feuds and ineffective politicking rather than major bills pending in the parliament.

Political analysts say the public's strong disillusionment with the major political parties is expected to favor political novices and civic activists in next year's showdowns.

"It is apparent that voters want change in politics now and that's why new figures with fresh images are considered as alternatives to the incumbent politicians, who are often embroiled in corruption," said Yoon Hee-woong from the Korea Social Research Center.

The most attention-grabbing political star in 2011 was software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo, the founder of the nation's largest anti-virus software firm Ahnlab Co.

The 49-year-old doctor-turned-professor is hugely popular with youth for his clean image, and jolted the ruling party when he spoke out against Lee's policies accused of favoring conglomerates, saying it stifles entrepreneurship and eats up small businesses.

Though Ahn did not run in the October election for Seoul mayor, he endorsed lawyer-turned-activist candidate Park Won-soon, and was thought to be instrumental in the political novice winning against his high-profile ruling camp rival.

Politicians are carefully watching whether Ahn could also become a game changer in next year's election, though he has kept quiet on any presidential ambitions.

"Ahn Cheol-soo will be a key factor in next year's elections if he plays a role in forming an anti-government force," Yoon said.

The hardest hit by Ahn's rise has been Park Geun-hye, who had been biding her time to become South Korea's first female president.

The daughter of late president Park Chung-hee stayed away from party affairs over the past few years, but recently returned to the party's forefront with growing calls for her to carry out a major reform to shed the ruling Grand National Party's image of representing the rich.

Experts say Park's leadership will ultimately affect her election bid, since the April general elections are considered a crucial vote that could impact the ensuing race.

"It is apparent that the results of the April votes will set the future course for Park when she runs in the December race," Shin said.

Ahead of the two major showdowns, fractured parties in the opposition camp realigned to launch two merged parties in December in a bid to increase their chances of winning a majority in the April poll.

The main opposition Democratic Party merged with a novice party, led by former aides for the late President Roh Moo-hyun, to create a center-left "Democratic Unity Party." The new party promised expanded welfare programs and policies favorable to small and medium businesses.

The progressive Labor Democratic Party, which fiercely opposed the just-ratified free trade agreement with the United States, united with two other minor parties to launch the "Unified Progressive Party."

Although the liberal forces did not form a fully united front due to their ideological differences, political analysts see a chance that the progressive party could form an alliance with the center-left party to avoid vote-splitting in key districts.

"Despite their efforts to form a unified front, liberals are not competitive enough to win a majority in the parliament. They will have no choice but to form an alliance ahead of the coming elections," Hong said.


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