South Korea's main opposition party won 11 of 16 key regional posts in local elections yesterday, according to exit polls, riding to landslide victories on nationwide sympathy for its leader wounded in a knife assault and widespread disenchantment with the government.
The ruling Uri Party won just a single race among the mayoral and gubernatorial posts up for grabs, according to exit polls by KBS television. The small Millennium Democratic Party won two races, and two campaigns were too close to call, KBS said.
Among the key positions won by the opposition Grand National Party were mayors of the capital, Seoul, and second-largest city Busan, along with the governor of Gyeonggi Province that surrounds Seoul, the exit polls showed. GNP members had previously held those three jobs.
Official results were expected later yesterday.
The Uri Party's sole victory so far according to the exit polls was in North Jeolla Province, a traditional stronghold of the Millennium Democratic Party, which severed its ties with Uri in 2003.
Chung Dong-young, chairman of the Uri Party, said he "would humbly accept the public evaluation seen in the election."
"As party chief, I feel heavy responsibility," Chung said, according to his party. Chung, who is seen as a leading presidential contender next year, said he would announce follow-up measures after discussions among the party.
The local elections are viewed as a key indicator of popular sentiment ahead of presidential elections next year.
"It was better than I expected," said Oh Se-hoon, the GNP candidate set to become Seoul's mayor with more than 63 percent of the vote, according to the exit polls. "I think it reflects the peoples' expectations for clean politics and new administration."
Preliminary total voter turnout was 51.2 percent of the 37 million eligible voters out of the country's 48 million people, election officials said. Election day was designated a national holiday to boost turnout, and participation exceeded the 48.9 percent turnout of the last local election in 2002.
The Uri Party has struggled with low poll numbers this year amid a public perception that it has failed to boost the economy and make reforms.
Recent polls showed the opposition GNP surging after the May 20 attack on its chairwoman, Park Geun-hye, who was released Monday from the hospital where she was treated for an 11cm face wound allegedly inflicted by an ex-convict who opposed her party's positions.
The ruling party has not been linked in any way with the crime, but media reports said the incident may cost the party one of only two races that it had been forecast to win among the 16 key mayoral and gubernatorial posts at stake.
Park, 54, is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, who ruled for 18 years after taking power in a 1961 military coup and was assassinated by his intelligence chief. She is considered a leading candidate in the 2007 presidential elections.