South Korea's opposition party received a powerful boost Thursday in local elections held throughout the country which were seen as a key test of public opinion ahead of December's presidential poll. The conservative Grand National Party secured a number of significant local posts, although turnout was at a record low.
While many South Koreans avoided the polls Thursday, those that went offered a clear message to Seoul: they want a change in leadership.
South Korea's conservative opposition Grand National Party swept the local government elections, capturing five of nine provincial governorships and winning mayoral races in six of seven major cities, including the capital Seoul, the country's second city Busan and the major port of Inchon.
The opposition did better than most political analysts had forecast. Politics Professor Lee Chung-min of Yonsei University says public outrage over a series of corruption scandals involving ruling party officials, their families and their aides drove the poll. He says the most recent trigger was the indictment last week of one of President Kim Dae-jung's sons. Kim Hong-gul is now in jail awaiting trial on influence-peddling and tax evasion charges.
"The irony of this election is that the Korean economy, after suffering a meltdown in 1997 and 1998 under the former government, has basically rebounded and has made tremendous strides," he said. "But that has not resulted in positive dividends for the ruling party because of the scandals for the president's sons and other high ranking officials and basically systemic corruption that has been endemic of this administration."
People on the streets of Seoul echo that view. A street merchant says that at first he supported the government but he no longer thinks it will reform itself and so he voted for the opposition.
Another man says that the current government has deceived the public. He adds that he hopes everything will be turned around and completely transformed.
But while some people voted for change, many expressed indifference or dissatisfaction by not voting at all. Forty-eight percent of eligible voters cast ballots, a record low. The government declared Thursday a national holiday in the hope that more voters would turn up at polling stations, but instead many people just relaxed or traveled back to their hometowns for a long weekend.
In addition, millions of South Koreans are swept up by the World Cup football tournament which their nation is co-hosting with Japan. Many voters, especially young ones who tend to back the more liberal ruling party, spent the day gearing up for Friday night's crucial match in which South Korea must win or draw against Portugal to advance to the next round.