South Korea’s conservative ruling party might have lost its parliamentary majority in yesterday’s general election, exit polls by three major TV channels showed.
The polls said the Saenuri Party was forecast to win between 118 and 147 seats in the 300-member National Assembly.
The main opposition Minjoo Party was expected to secure between 97 and 128, while the splinter opposition People’s Party to win between 31 and 43 seats.
“Obviously, we’re worried about the exit poll results, but we will calmly wait until the final ballot counting results are returned,” Saenuri’s parliamentary floor leader Won Yoo-chul said on national KBS TV.
The elections were clouded by North Korean nuclear threats and the multiple challenges facing Asia’s fourth-largest economy, as South Korean President Park Geun-hye enters the final stretch of her term in office.
Political power in South Korea is firmly concentrated in the presidency and elections to the single-chamber national assembly are traditionally dominated by local issues.
It was expected to become clear at about 11pm last night if Saenuri had lost its majority.
However, observers cautioned that exit polls have been wrong in the past five parliamentary elections.
If the ruling party, which won 152 parliamentary seats four years ago, fails to hold a majority it would be forced to rely on independent lawmakers to retain power.
Rising unemployment, plunging exports and worryingly high levels of household debt have led to criticisms of Park’s handling of the economy and, by extension, of the Saenuri Party.
Dissatisfaction is especially high among young people, with the unemployment rate among those aged 15 to 29 at record levels.
The left-wing opposition has sought to frame the vote as a referendum on Park’s economic policies, but has suffered from factional infighting and breakaways that threatened to split the liberal vote to Saenuri’s advantage.
Kate Kim, an unemployed 25-year-old college graduate, said that crippling levels of unemployment had persuaded her and many of her previously apathetic friends to vote.
“This is the first time I have voted ... our country desperately needs change, especially for young and jobless people like me,” Kim said.
All 300 seats in the legislature were up for grabs, with 253 chosen in first-past-the-post constituency elections and the remaining 47 elected on a separate ballot via proportional representation.
Analysts had predicted Saenuri’s chances would receive a boost from surging military tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula, but the exit polls indicated that threats from North Korea might have failed to aid the ruling party, traditionally regarded as hawkish on security issues.
The North conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
However, Chung Hae-young, a businessman in Seoul, said he had voted for the ruling conservatives, hailing their hard-line stance toward Pyongyang.
“I like how the party handled the North, although it honestly hasn’t done a good job with the economy,” the 60-year-old said.
However, the conservatives have also suffered from internal bickering, particularly over the process for nominating candidates, which led to a number of defections by lawmakers running as independents.
“During the nomination process, we failed and disappointed the people. It is entirely our fault,” Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung said last week.
The outcome of yesterday’s vote could have a significant impact on Park, who has less than two years left to serve of her five-year single term.
A strong Saenuri showing would give her more leverage in pushing bills through the assembly, while a dwindling of conservative support would leave her very much a lame duck.
Park has fallen short on most of her key economic promises, a failure she puts down to legislative inaction, but which critics say owes more to skewed priorities, poor decisionmaking and Park’s authoritarian style of leadership.
Under her presidency, annual economic growth has averaged about 2.9 percent, compared with 3.2 percent under her predecessor, former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.
Exports, which account for more than half of GDP, have fallen for 14 consecutive months, while household debt has soared to a record US$1 trillion.
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