Wed, Feb 07, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Mass defections in South Korea's Uri Party ahead of polls

AP , SEOUL

South Korea's ruling Uri Party was forced out of the top spot in the country's legislature as 23 lawmakers quit yesterday to form a new party ahead of presidential elections later this year.

The defection is likely to further cripple President Roh Moo-hyun's efforts to garner legislative support for key policies. Roh is already suffering from worsening public approval and considered a lame duck in his last year in office.

With the lawmakers' decision to leave, the Uri Party now has 110 seats in the 299-member National Assembly, boosting the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) to the No. 1 spot with 127 seats.

Several lawmakers have already left the Uri Party in the hope of distancing themselves from unpopular Roh ahead of the December presidential election. More defections are expected.

"We will sincerely cooperate with President Roh Moo-hyun so that he can manage affairs during the remainder of his term, but we strongly reject any political intervention," the 23 lawmakers said in a joint statement

"We hope many lawmakers would join us," the statement said.

Details on a new party have yet to be determined. The Uri Party is expected to announce the party's plans for a breakup at their annual convention next week.

The Uri Party said in a statement that yesterday's mass defections were "not a desirable act in view of political morals," adding the defectors should have joined forces with party members instead if it wanted to form another party.

It is widely expected the Uri Party will split into at least two groups.

It is common in South Korea for politicians to launch new parties ahead of presidential elections to bolster their chances.

The Uri Party has suffered humiliating defeats in recent local elections as Roh's popularity has waned, amid perceptions that his administration is unwilling to acknowledge its failure to counter soaring house prices and revive a stagnant economy.

Roh has criticized moves within the Uri Party to form a new party, and has even offered to quit the party to contain such steps.

Roh's single five-year term ends in February next year.

The ruling camp lacks a prominent candidate to compete against presidential hopefuls from the conservative GNP.

Latest polls show former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak, a Hyundai chief executive turned politician, as the front runner, followed by Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee. Both are in the GNP.

Presidential hopefuls are to formally declare their candidacy in November.

The Uri Party was formed in 2003 as a splinter from the then ruling Democratic Party.

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