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(LEAD) Vacant Seoul mayoralty adds significance to next year's by-elections

All Headlines 17:00 July 11, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with details of memorial to Park in central Seoul in paras 5-7)

SEOUL, July 11 (Yonhap) -- As the death of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon earlier this week abruptly left the capital's mayoralty vacant, South Korea's rival political parties are bracing for another major election showdown in about nine months.

According to the National Election Commission, by-elections will be held on April 7, 2021, to fill posts that are vacated between March 17 this year and March 8 next year.

The Seoul mayoral race is regarded as the most important election in South Korea after the presidential poll held every five years.

Late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon in a file photo (Yonhap)

Park was found dead on a mountain in Seoul in apparent suicide shortly after midnight Friday, hours after he was reported missing by his family.

On Saturday, South Koreans lined up near a memorial altar set up in front of City Hall in central Seoul to pay their respects to Park. One noteworthy participant was Hyundai Motor Group Executive Vice Chairman Chung Euisun.

South Korea is divided over Park's death after his female former secretary filed a criminal complaint to the police earlier this week accusing Park of making unwanted "physical contact" and sending "inappropriate" messages.

Others, like Ahn Cheol-soo, head of the minor People's Party, who played a key role in Park's election victory in 2011, did not show up at either the memorial altar or the funeral home at Seoul National University hospital.

Following the April 15 parliamentary elections, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) are focused on preparing for the presidential election slated for the spring of 2022.

The rival parties face a heated-up election race a year earlier than expected.

As the capital, with a population of nearly 10 million, has been added to the list of constituencies for next year's by-elections, Kim Chong-in, caretaker leader of the UFP, said on Friday his party would have to gear up for by-elections "equivalent to the presidential election."

He cited by-elections scheduled in Seoul and Busan, the country's second-biggest city, and also the possibility of additional contests to fill other vacancies.

The UFP is eager to get its member elected as Seoul mayor, as Park with the DP had served at the position for a decade.

The ruling party lost the Busan mayoralty, as Oh Keo-don abruptly resigned in late April amid a sexual harassment scandal.

Two governors -- Lee Jae-myung of Gyeonggi Province and Kim Kyoung-soo of South Gyeongsang Province -- may be forced to step down as well, depending on ongoing trials. They both belong to the DP.

Lee is accused of violating the Public Official Election Act during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Kim was convicted of involvement in rigging online news comments for political purposes. If the ruling in his case is upheld by the Supreme Court, he will lose his governorship.

In addition, some lawmakers have been indicted in connection with last year's scuffle at the National Assembly over the fast-tracking of electoral and prosecution reform bills.

The DP's party constitution calls on it to refrain from fielding candidates for by-elections held due to wrongdoings, including corruption, by its elected lawmakers or civil servants.

But the party may decide to ignore the internal rule or revise the constitution for next year's all-important by-elections.

lcd@yna.co.kr
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