South Koreans vote for new parliament

Elections will determine whether new President Lee Myung-bak can easily push through his reform agenda to revitalize the economy.

Lee Myung-bak 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Lee Myung-bak 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
South Koreans voted Wednesday for a new parliament in elections that will determine whether new President Lee Myung-bak can easily push through his reform agenda to revitalize the economy. Lee's conservative Grand National Party is widely expected to win more seats than the liberal opposition United Democratic Party, restoring its dominance over the 299-member National Assembly. But with a large number of voters undecided and low turnout predicted, it remained unclear whether the GNP would win an outright majority in the single-chamber legislature. Lee, a former Seoul mayoral and Hyundai executive, won the Dec. 19 election by a landslide on the platform of taking pro-business measures, boosting ties with the United States and getting tougher on North Korea. However, his popularity has declined after he failed to immediately live up to his "get-the-job-done" image and several of his Cabinet appointees stepped down because of alleged ethical lapses. Lee has also suffered a series of angry gestures from North Korea over his argument the North first abandon its nuclear programs to get economic aid. In recent weeks, the North has test-fired missiles and ejected South Korean officials from a joint industrial complex. The North Korea issue, however, was not seen as a significant factor in this week's elections as many South Korean have been long used to bluster from their communist neighbor. The North was also to convene its rubber-stamp parliament Wednesday. The Supreme People's Assembly usually meets once or twice a year to approve budgets or discuss policy, and sometimes endorses doctrine on the standoff over its nuclear ambitions. About 37.8 million people in South Korea, a country of 49 million, are eligible to cast ballots at some 13,250 polling stations across the country, according to the National Election Commission. All 299 seats are at stake in the polls for four-year terms, with 245 members to be elected through direct votes in local districts and the other 54 chosen in party-list proportional voting. The new parliament will be begin meeting May 30 for a four-year term. Jin Jeong-ahn, a 64-year-old housewife in Seoul, said she voted for a GNP candidate because she believes it will help Lee run state affairs in a more stable manner. "I like Lee because I think he is an honest man with initiative and drive," said Jin, who was among the first to vote in a Seoul constituency, where incumbent GNP lawmaker Park Jin is battling against UDP Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu. "I voted for Sohn as he is the opposition leader. We have to help Sohn maintain his dignity and check the Lee Myung-bak government," said Jung Ho, a 54-year-old barber. The GNP has called on voters to help the president carry out his economic plans by giving them control of parliament. "It has been just a month since the launch of the Lee Myung-bak government, which the people chose to revive the nation's economy," party spokeswoman Cho Yoon-seon said Tuesday in a statement. "If we turn off the engine even before starting up the economic recovery, the Lee government can't take even one step forward." In part of efforts to boost turnout, the election commission gave voters coupons for 2,000 won (US$2, €1.30) discounts at government-run parks, museums and parking lots. Voter turnout stood at 2.5 percent as of 7 a.m. Wednesday (2200 GMT Tuesday), one hour after the voting started, according to the election commission. The final election turnout was expected at around 50 percent, which would be a record low for parliament elections.