At polls, South Korea conservatives pay for response to Cheonan sinking
City and provincial elections dealt a blow to the conservative government of South Korea President Lee Myung-bak. Many voters were unhappy with the strong response to the sinking of the Cheonan Navy vessel.
Seoul, South Korea
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As final returns came in Thursday, stunned analysts and politicians sought to figure out why so many voters clearly were not happy with the government’s response to the sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel in March in which 46 sailors died.
In voting for more than 4,000 city and provincial positions, candidates of the main opposition Democratic Party won seven of 16 elections for governor and mayor as opposed to six for Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party, which previously had 11 of the 16 positions.
No margin of comfort
Declared the winner by a margin of less than 1 percent, Mr. Oh issued a statement in which he said he “in reality was defeated.” His opponent, Han Myeong-sook, who had been a prime minister in the previous liberal government under the late President Roh Moo-hyun, declared “the people of Seoul and the nation have won” even though “I may have lost.”
Oh did not pull ahead in the count until early Thursday when the National Election Commission said he had 47.43 percent of the votes as opposed to 46.83 percent for Ms. Han. The close vote may well have eliminated him as a possible conservative candidate in the 2012 election to succeed Lee, barred by the Constitution from a second five-year term.
A factor in the resurgence of the opposition was the desire of younger voters for change. All told, 54.5 of the electorate went to the polls, the highest percentage in 15 years. Many older voters, more likely to support the conservatives, stayed home or enjoyed the holiday that was set aside for voting.
Oh had earlier been viewed as an easy winner in elections in which Lee’s popularity was believed to have risen on the strength of his strong stance against North Korea. The government on May 20 announced the results of an investigation showing that a North Korean midget submarine had fired the torpedo that sunk the Cheonan in disputed waters in the West or Yellow Sea.
Making matters worse?
Instead of denouncing North Korea for the attack, however, Democratic Party candidates criticized their government for retaliatory measures on trade and aid that have infuriated the North. In rallies, Internet postings, and television ads, they often posed the question, “Do you want war or do you want peace?”
The government was “demonstrating and promoting this Cheonan thing right before the elections,” says Cho Min-soo, an office worker. “It was so carefully planned. People didn’t buy it.” By cutting off trade with North Korea, says Mr. Cho, President Lee “is somehow making matters worse.”