Park's Stand on North Korea Boosts Party's Chances in Elections

  • Ruling party aiming to pick up seats in South Korean election
  • Outcome seen as a `litmus' test for 2017 presidential race

President Park Geun Hye’s tough stance against North Korea is boosting her party’s chances in parliamentary elections, where picking up a significant number of seats would revive her economic agenda.

South Koreans go to the polls Wednesday to elect a new parliament less than two years before the next presidential election. With Park limited to one term, her party is aiming to gain a large enough majority to expedite key legislation.

Park has been blaming gridlock in the 300-member parliament for failure to pass bills to reform the labor market, enhance cyber-security and boost service industries. Her Saenuri Party also has pledged during the campaign to push for quantitative easing steps. If the party can muster 34 additional seats, it could push through the proposals without having to seek consent from the opposition.

“If implemented, the proposed measures would directly benefit investors in South Korea,” Miha Hribernik, a senior analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, wrote on the website of his organization, referring to Saenuri’s pledge to allow the Bank of Korea to directly purchase bonds from government-affiliated institutions such as the Korea Development Bank. “The plan lacks detail and information on funding sources, suggesting that it was primarily unveiled with the goal of shoring up support in the election.”

On the eve of the vote, Park underscored the nuclear threat from North Korea -- asking voters to elect a parliament that understands the importance of passing her proposals amid the nuclear risk and global economic uncertainty.

“Sleepless nights have increased because of the heavy sense of responsibility weighing on my mind and body,” Park said at a cabinet meeting.

Increasing Majority

Based on the latest polls, the ruling party may fall short of its goal of 180 seats: It may increase its share from 146 to as many as 175 in Wednesday’s elections, Yonhap News reported Sunday.

If Park’s party doesn’t achieve a super-majority, it could court support from the People’s Party, a group that recently split off from the main opposition Minjoo Party. The People’s Party has 20 lawmakers and is expected to increase that number, boosting the profile of leader Ahn Cheol Soo as a presidential aspirant, according to Choi Chang Ryul, a political commentator and professor of liberal arts at Yong In University.

Ahn, a businessman-turned-politician, gave up his presidential bid in 2012 despite polls suggesting he could beat Park. Shares of Ahnlab Inc., which he founded, have risen 21 percent since the parliamentary campaign began on March 31.

“The key impact of the vote will be its role as a litmus test of candidate popularity for the pivotal 2017 presidential election,” Hribernik at Verisk Maplecroft said by e-mail. “Park and Saenuri poll favorably on issues of national security, a fact they will try to capitalize on as they prepare for the upcoming 2017 presidential election.”

Saenuri had an approval rating of 39 percent while the Minjoo Party had 21 percent in a Gallup Korea poll released Friday. The People’s Party had 14 percent. More than 20 percent of voters said they had no preference.

Unemployment Rate

The revived nuclear threat from North Korea with its recent test -- and the ruling party’s tough line against it -- has helped limit the impact of a slumping economy on Saenuri’s support. The youth unemployment rate hit a record in February and Korea’s exports have been falling for 15 consecutive months. Household debt remains at a record level.

QuickTake North Korea's Nukes

“North Korea’s many provocations this year, including a fourth nuclear test in January, have made national security much more salient than normal,” Robert Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, wrote on the website of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. “­Saenuri voters are tightly clustered around hawkish foreign policy beliefs and character, while President Park’s opponents are all over the place.”

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