April 19, 2004 | WebMemo on Asia
The April 15 elections in South Korea marked the first significant shift of power in the National Assembly in four decades. The reformist Uri Party ("Our Open Party"), supported by impeached President Roh and representing younger South Koreans, emerged as the victor in the country's 17th parliamentary elections, pushing aside the 43-year dominance of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP). Although the Uri Party won only a slim majority (152 of the 299 seats in parliament), this was an astonishing victory for a party formed six months ago as a small political splinter. The GNP captured only 121 seats, and the Liberal Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), which had been the largest opposition party, will now hold nine seats. The radical left Democratic Labor Party (DLP) captured ten seats. The greatest victor of all, though, is South Korean democracy.
This marks the first time in sixteen years that the president's party controls the National Assembly and gives a strong boost for impeached President Roh Moo Hyun. On March 12, President Roh was impeached by the GNP-dominated National Assembly on two charges of campaign irregularities. His fate now rests with the Constitutional Court, which will decide whether he will be reinstated or stripped of his presidential powers.
Although it would be premature to make further conclusions about the impact of the elections, several observations are noteworthy from the U.S. perspective:
The greatest victory, however, may not be for a particular party or individual leader, but for democracy itself. Aroused by both indignation and support for President Roh's impeachment, almost 60 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls, an unprecedented turnout. The turnout of voters was also unusually high, boosting the Uri's Party victory. But conservatives were also able to rouse support for the GNP party, and their voice will remain strong in Parliament.
Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.