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(News focus) Park faces tough road after ruling party's election defeat

All Headlines 08:52 April 14, 2016

By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Saenuri Party’s defeat in South Korea’s high-stakes parliamentary elections could deal a blow to President Park Geun-hye's ability to effectively manage state affairs, as well as derail her reform drive.

Park has repeatedly expressed frustration for legislative impasse that has kept a set of bills from being passed through the National Assembly. The ruling party has 146 seats in the outgoing parliament.

Still, the situation has become worse as the Saenuri Party secured just 122 out of 300 seats up for grabs in Wednesday's elections, while the main opposition Minjoo Party secured 123 seats and the People's Party won 38 seats.

The rest of the seats are held by another minor opposition, the Justice Party, and independents.

The election outcome marked the first time in 16 years that a ruling party failed to win a parliamentary majority.

The development means the opposition parties could derail and slam the brakes on Park’s reform agenda unless she changes her attitude toward the opposition party that could include making compromises.

Park has recently made a public appeal to ensure that the new parliament can serve the people and do its job, in a thinly veiled accusation against the main opposition party over what she perceives is its unwarranted opposition to the passage of critical bills in areas like labor reform.

The chief executive and the Saenuri have argued that overhauling the labor market is crucial for South Korea to make the next leap forward and stay globally competitive. The opposition has opposed taking such a step.

Still, the election results showed that Park's public appeal has gone nowhere. Instead, the results are widely seen as a public judgment against Park's alleged high-handed manner in running state affairs and the ruling party’s perceived arrogance.

The ruling party had been mired in bruising factional infighting over nominations for the elections, that reached its peak when the chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung actually refused to nominate Saenuri candidates in certain districts, an unprecedented act.

The poor showing in the latest elections, moreover, marked a departure from Park's ability to win neck-and-neck elections for her party several times over the past decade, that earned her the "Queen of Elections" nickname.

Park “could finish her remaining time in office smoothly only when she switches a confrontational structure with the opposition party to a cooperative one,” said Yoon Hee-woong, an official of Opinion Live, a local polling agency, citing the ruling party has failed to win a parliamentary majority.

The polls are crucial in South Korean politics as they will shape the legislative landscape for the next four years and gauge public sentiment ahead of next year's presidential race.

"They will influence how people think when they decide to pick the next chief executive, although as can be seen in previous cases a victory in the parliamentary race does not ensure a win in the presidential ballot," a long-time political watcher said.

South Koreans will go to the polls in December 2017 to elect a new leader, who will succeed Park, whose single five-year term will end in 2018. By law, she cannot seek re-election.

The election results, meanwhile, marked a return to a three-party political system that South Korea has not seen in many years.

The People's Party has won 38 seats, almost double from the 20 seats it currently holds in the outgoing legislature.

The party's unexpected strong showing makes it a force to be reckoned with in local politics as the ruling and the main opposition parties will need the People's Party’s support in parliament.
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