Tue, Apr 13, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Opposition gaining momentum since South Korea impeachment row

The Grand National Party, which seemed just weeks ago to have miscalculated badly by impeaching the nation's president, now looks set to at least stave off a rout

By Martin Nesirky  /  REUTERS , SEOUL

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

She may wince now with pain from shaking the hands of so many voters, but South Korean opposition party leader Park Geun-hye could yet emerge from next week's parliamentary election with a smile.

Political analysts say her conservative Grand National Party will certainly no longer dominate the single-chamber National Assembly, where it held more than half the seats and often thwarted Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's reform plans.

But it could win significantly more seats than many thought after the party voted to impeach Roh on March 12 and bombed in the opinion polls for misjudging the public mood.

Anything short of a rout for a party tainted by corruption scandals would be success in the turbulent world of South Korean politics -- a world in which the left-leaning, pro-Roh Uri Party surged from being just a splinter group to a position where it could secure a big majority in the new 299-seat parliament.

"Maybe a few weeks ago we were talking about a devastating defeat for the Grand National Party. But now no longer," said political commentator Shim Jae-hoon, who saw the opposition party winning about 100 seats.

"Passions are cooling, the impeachment bubble is bursting and people are recovering a sense of stability."

Other political analysts said the Grand National Party was likely to secure between 80 and 120 seats -- more than the opinion polls suggested in the run-up to the campaign.

Shim and other political analysts said that did not mean the Grand National Party's future was assured in a transitional period in which the divide is increasingly between generations rather than the regions that have for so long played the decisive role in parliamentary and presidential elections.

"Park is making efforts to reform the Grand National Party, but it will take time to judge whether the efforts are successful," said Kim Il-young, a political scientist at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University.

Park, whose father Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea from a 1961 coup until he was gunned down by his own intelligence chief in 1979, said this week the most urgent task was to apologize to the people and change the party's negative image.

"To be reborn as a clean and policy-focused party is the only way to recover the people's trust," she said.

The analysts said the gestation period may prove long.

"Although the Roh government made lots of mistakes, the Grand National Party also lost its moral ground," said Kim Kwang-dong, a political scientist at Seoul's Korea University.

He said the scandal concerning illegal political funding, which has hit most parties but hurt the Grand National Party the most, had undermined the party's position. Shim agreed.

"The Grand National Party has had a number of problems, one of which is that it is too deeply tainted with corruption," he said. "In fact, the amount of illegal campaign funding that it shook down from the business community went up to something like $70 billion won (US$60 million), which was unprecedentedly high."

Shim said the Grand National Party had failed to move swiftly to address a growing generation gap. Roh was elected by young voters who now back the Uri Party, have less hardline views on North Korea and are less wedded to unfettered market economics.

"Everywhere you see the new-generation voters are challenging the old accepted norms," he said.

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