SEOUL — VOTERS have given a cold shower to South Korea's ruling party in national elections, denying it a majority in the National Assembly and dousing its near-certainty of retaining the presidency next year.
Other fallout from Tuesday's vote, say analysts, will be a political realignment in South Korea and perhaps a weakening of the government's hand in dealing with North Korea.
Unlike past elections, in which the only opposition was from leftward parties, the crucial challenge to the conservative Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) came from a maverick conservative, Chung Ju Yung. Mr. Chung, who founded South Korea's largest business group, Hyundai, started his Unification National Party (UNP) just one month ago and still managed to win 31 of the Assembly's 299 seats. He had expected only about 20.
With the ruling party coming up one seat shy of a majority in this election, Chung has become an instant power broker in South Korean politics, or at least his role as a potential parliamentary pivot may confuse the situation leading up to elections this December to replace the lame-duck president, Roh Tae Woo.
The governing DLP had expected to win 60 percent to 65 percent of the seats, and thus was stunned by the election setback that revealed widespread protest voting.
"We must humbly accept the people's will," President Roh stated. The party's seat dropped from 212 to 149, although DLP leaders pointed out that their popular vote was up slightly compared to previous parliamentary elections.
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) under longtime opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, did better than expected and added to its legislative strength by winning 97 seats, up by 22.
"We're happy the voters tried to ban the DLP from using heavy-handed tactics to get its way," said a DP official, Kim Dae Sung. But the Democrats remain limited by a stigma that they are mainly a regional party based in the southwest province of Cholla.
The better-than-expected showing of Chung's party may have come from his party being seen as a "conservative alternative." The UNP played off popular discontent over the economy and a dislike for a clique of politicians from a central region who have kept a tight hold on the government for decades.
This tight-knit group of mainly former military officers tried to thwart Chung's challenge by various campaign moves, but the harassment only worked to heighten Chung's popularity.
In the last elections for the National Assembly in 1988, the ruling party also failed to gain a majority, but merged with two opposition parties in 1990 to leave Kim Dae Jung on the political fringe while his fellow opposition leader, Kim Young Sam, became political chief of the DLP.
These "two Kims" lost to Roh in the 1987 presidential race, but now Kim Young Sam is counting on Roh to help him win the DLP's support for the presidential race.
Combined, the new UNP and the DP have gained enough seats to deny the DLP a two-thirds majority in parliament. This new opposition bloc can prevent moves advocated by some DLP leaders to change the Constitution to a full parliamentary system.
Such a step would likely deny Kim Young Sam the chance to achieve his long-sought goal of the presidency and possibly keep power within the hands of old, right-wing stalwarts in the DLP.
The election upset has already brought charges by opponents of Mr. Kim within the DLP that he failed to lead the party to victory and thus should not be nominated for president. But Kim did deliver all the seats in his home turf around the city of Pusan.
The DLP is expected to move quickly to woo some of the 21 independents who won seats into the party so that it can have a workable majority in parliament.
Even so, says DP official Kim, the ruling party "will have to deal with us before they go ahead with talks on North Korea." As for the north itself, many analysts say the new political muddle in South Korea will possibly cause it to delay any bold steps until after the presidential election.