S. Korea vote called boost for president

Roh was impeached, but his party triples seats, wins legislative majority

April 16, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SEOUL, South Korea - In a sharp political backlash against the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun, South Korean voters tripled the size of his legislative delegation yesterday, ensuring liberal control of the legislature.

In a rout of conservatives who voted for impeachment one month ago, Roh's Uri Party won 152 seats, a slim majority of the 299-seat, one-chamber National Assembly. The conservative Grand National Party lost its majority, falling to 121 seats, and the Millennium Democrats, once the second force, were reduced to a handful of seats, according to near-final results. A new left-wing party, the Democratic Labor Party, came in third, winning 10 seats.

Uri Party officials called on the legislature to vote to undo the impeachment vote at its next session, and the acting president, Prime Minister Goh Kun, said today in a televised statement that the "impeachment situation" should be brought to a close.

But Yonhap, the semiofficial Korean news agency, reported that the Constitutional Court said today that its deliberations on the impeachment would not be affected by the results.

In addition to placing the legislature in the hands of the liberal-left, yesterday's vote marks the first time since democracy was restored here in 1987 that the president and the legislature will come from the same party. Roh has four more years in his term, and the lawmakers elected yesterday will serve four-year terms.

"This is the first shift of power in the National Assembly in 43 years," Chung Eui-yong, the Uri Party's foreign relations spokesman, said yesterday evening. While party labels have changed, he said, conservatives had dominated South Korea's legislature since 1961. "This means a new beginning for Korean politics."

With this new alignment, political analysts are talking here of a new Roh presidency.

"This is the second round to the presidential election," said Yoon Seung-yee, a political science professor at Kyungsan University, referring to the December 2002 presidential vote, which Roh won narrowly. "President Roh will get more power, especially in relation to the National Assembly. But there are still strong voices of the conservatives. It can't be a one-sided game."

Conservatives warned that Roh would now embark on a radical, labor-friendly agenda for the world's 12th-largest economy. "We expected Uri to lead," Chun Yu-ok, Grand National Party spokesman, told reporters after the victory was clear. "But with this many seats, combined with the unique character of Roh, we're afraid it will be like a high-speed racing car without brakes."

Roh was inaugurated in February 2003 and his first year was marked by sharp acrimony between conservatives and liberals, a split that reflected generational shifts as well as ideological ones.

Conservatives faulted Roh for his style as much as his politics. They winced at his informal language and complained when he openly asked for advice or expressed self-doubt.

A conservative coalition impeached Roh on what South Korean voters apparently saw as a technicality: possibly violating election law by making public comments in favor of his own political party.

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