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(News Focus) Rival parties heating up campaign for April's general elections

All Headlines 13:20 March 11, 2012

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, March 11 (Yonhap) -- With parliamentary elections only one month away, rival parties have nearly completed their lists of candidates for a tough battle that could shape the political landscape in the final year of President Lee Myung-bak's term and affect another vote to pick his successor.

The April 11 elections are considered a crucial bellwether in Asia's fourth-largest economy that is challenged by a sluggish economy and growing wealth divide with an ensuing presidential race in December. It is the first time in two decades that South Korea will hold the two major polls in the same year.

With Lee's overall approval rating remaining below 30 percent, his ruling party is trying to distance itself from the unpopular president. Liberal politicians are talking tougher against the government and its policies to attract voters unhappy with Lee.

The latest polls show the ruling Saenuri Party is expected to lose its majority in the unicameral parliament, but analysts say the vote is wide open.

"The main issues in the elections will be the economy, jobs and welfare," said Shin Yul, a politics professor at Seoul's Myeongji University. "The elections will be a mostly two-way race between the ruling and opposition parties, with some independents and candidates from a third party. It is still uncertain, as rival parties have not yet started a full-fledged campaign."

The conservative Saenuri Party, led by Lee's erstwhile rival and leading presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye, changed its platform to attract more voters unhappy with Lee and softened the party's stance on North Korea after Lee's hardline policy was blamed for escalating inter-Korean tensions.

Amid the deepening internal rift, a novice conservative Korea Vision Party has drawn attention since its establishment last month. The new party could split the conservative voting bloc while liberal groups are trying to form a broad alliance to raise their chances in the upcoming polls.

Saenuri lawmakers worry disparate conservative groups could pose a big challenge in tight races.

"If conservatives are split while opposition parties form an alliance, there will be a bad outcome," Saenuri spokesman Hwang Young-chul said in a recent radio interview. "I am very concerned about it."

The resurgent Democratic United Party (DUP) is vying for a majority in the 300-member parliament in the April vote, through alliance with the leftist minor Progressive Unified Party (PUP) under an agreement to field unified candidates in electorates through open poll competitions.

"Preventing several liberal candidates from running against a conservative contender will be an advantage to liberals, especially in neck-and-neck races," said Lee Taek-soo, director of the research firm Realmeter.

The liberal alliance pledged to scrap major projects including the free trade agreement with the United States and a controversial naval base project on the southern resort island of Jeju.

While the trade pact is set to take effect later this week and the base construction is still underway, the DUP vowed to renegotiate or scrap the projects, initially pushed by the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration when it was in power.

While the rival parties have nearly completed the selection of candidates, they are both marred by a bitter internal feud between the leadership and those who did not receive a nod from the party. Some even bolted from the party, while other cutoffs have considered running as independent in their current electorates.

A liberal win in this election would accelerate Lee's lame-duck status in the remainder of his term, as liberal politicians vow to delve into a series of corruption scandals involving his close aides and confidants before the December race.

In February, DUP Chairwoman Han Myeong-sook called for a mass resignation of the Cabinet and an apology from Lee, blasting his administration for a series of corruption scandals as part of an aggressive campaign.

By law, Lee is barred from seeking reelection after his single five-year term ends in February 2013.

As presidential hopefuls prepare to drum up support in the run-up to the crucial political test, some districts have been highlighted as a "proxy battle" for a bigger showdown.

Rep. Hong Sa-duk, a six-term lawmaker loyal to Park Geun-hye, faces off against Rep. Chung Se-kyun, a former DUP chairperson in the Jongno district in central Seoul. It is where incumbent Lee and late president Roh Moo-hyun were elected before moving to the top office.

Another big match is expected in Sasang-district in the southern port city of Busan, traditionally considered a conservative stronghold.

The DUP's Moon Jae-in, the former chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun and considered one of the leading liberal presidential contenders, is campaigning against a 27-year-old female novice candidate Sohn Su-jo.

A victory in the tough district will prove Moon's appeal to voters in the conservative base and may possibly put him on a direct path to declare his candidacy for president.

It would put him at the top of the weak field to date of left-leaning candidates to run against the ruling camp's leading contender Park Geun-hye, who was the favorite for three years until the middle of 2011, political watchers say.

"The results of the April elections will affect the political landscape and the presidential hopefuls in the latter half of this year," said Yoon Hee-woong, director of the Korea Social Research Center. "Rival parties will launch a do-or-die battle to get ahead in creating and framing the election agenda in the coming days."


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