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Top South Korean politician pays
the price for local election defeat

By Kurt Achin, VoA

1 June 2006: The chairman of the South Korean president's political party has resigned to accept responsibility for a sweeping defeat in this week's local elections. Voters overwhelmingly selected members of the main conservative opposition party to fill local authority positions, possibly dealing a serious blow to the ability of the country’s president's to advance his agenda.

Chung Dong-young, chairman of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's Uri party, says Wednesday's stinging defeat at the polls is ultimately his fault -- and he has given up his position over it. Chung said he failed to keep his promise to voters. He resigned Thursday, 1 June 2006, less than 24 hours after his party's resounding defeat in regional elections.  In race after race, voters handed decisive victories to the conservative opposition Grand National Party, or GNP, including the influential mayor posts in Seoul and Busan, the country's two largest cities. In 16 races viewed as crucial, the Uri party was victorious in just one.

Despite this personal setback, Chung is widely seen as a front running Uri party candidate in presidential elections scheduled for next year.  For the party as a whole, and for President Roh, the political horizon may be much more bleak.

Experts say the GNP's victory was fuelled by voter disillusionment with Mr Roh's economic policies.  Many voters say they see President Roh as indecisive, with few concrete plans for steering the country's affairs. Another factor that may have tipped the scales Wednesday is voter outrage and sympathy over a knife attack against GNP chairwoman Park Geun-hye just days before the vote.

Park, whose cheek was slashed by an assailant, following a party rally, said the election results sent a clear message. “Voters have overwhelmingly made clear they want political change.”

Park is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, whose authoritarian rule lasted for 18 years, until he was shot to death by his intelligence chief.  Park Geun-hye is expected to resign her chairmanship soon, to make her own run for president.  She is considered a leading contender.

Next year's presidential vote is already shaping up to be a competition between two distinctly different political philosophies.  President Roh's left-leaning Uri party seeks more autonomy from the United States, and avoids criticism of North Korea as part of its policy of cooperation and engagement with Pyongyang.  The GNP is traditionally more conservative, more closely aligned with Washington, and less conciliatory toward North Korea.

For now, Wednesday's vote may have strengthened the GNP's political position.  However, a spokesman for President Roh says the Uri party will "show its mettle" as it deals with the current crisis.  And political analysts agree there is plenty of time before next year's presidential vote for a possible change in popular sentiment.

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