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Could Next Election Be Crossroad for South Korean Politics? - 2004-03-07


South Korean voters head to the polls next month to elect a new national assembly. The general election comes amid a wave of corruption scandals that have gripped the country.

With about six weeks to go before voters cast their ballots, the political jostling in South Korea is intensifying, spurred on by widening corruption scandals. Investigations into bribe-taking during the 2002 Presidential elections have already implicated officials from the three major political parties.

Speaking at a recent forum in New York on South Korea's election, sponsored by the Korea Society, Scott Snyder from The Asia Foundation said voters are angry with their country's political establishment. "The major backdrop for the election is political corruption and the resulting feeling of disillusionment," said Mr. Snyder, "and so I think Korean voters are going to go to the polls in a very anti-incumbent mood, and they're really looking for political reform."

Dozens of lawmakers are accused of illegally accepting money from big business in the December 2002 election, including members of the Uri party, widely considered to be the de facto ruling party. President Roh Moo-Hyun was elected in 2002 as a candidate for the Millennium Democratic Party, but he left that party last year, when a faction broke away to support his program for reforms and fight against corruption. Although President Roh is not formally a member of the Uri party, he's expressed support for the organization and is expected to formally announce his affiliation soon.

President Roh came into office promising to clean up Korean politics and business. Under his term, some opposition lawmakers have been sent to prison following months of investigations.

Another speaker at the forum, Portland State University professor Mel Gurtov, said the focus on corruption is testing South Korea's old way of politics as usual. New politicians who are determined to fight corruption are coming on the scene.

"What you would expect to have is two competing trends. One is the persistence of regionalism and probably therefore of fairly corrupt politics," said Professor Gurtov. "But on the other hand [there is] an emergence of a whole new trend of really clean candidates who are truly committed to political reform and who can think beyond region."

The April 15 election is also seen as a test of President Roh and the Uri party's popularity. The Uri party currently holds a small minority of the 273 seats in the outgoing national assembly.

Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation said if the Uri party gains more seats, that would increase President Roh's ability to govern and press on with political reforms.

"If he wants to be protected from veto overrides or if he wants to avoid a political stalemate and paralysis in the Korean system, then the president needs at least one third support," said Mr. Snyder, "and he needs to try and build a working coalition that will allow him to effectively maneuver in the national assembly."

Mr. Snyder added that even with a bigger support base in the national assembly, President Roh would still likely need to reach out to opposition groups to form a coalition government.

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