South Korea parliamentary election exit polls show liberal opposition parties winning in landslide

South Korea’s liberal opposition parties were expected to win a landslide victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary election, initial exit polls suggested, a result that if confirmed would make conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol a lame duck for his remaining three years in office.

The joint exit polls by South Korea’s three major TV stations – KBS, MBC and SBS – showed the main opposition Democratic Party and its satellite party were forecast to win combined 178-197 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. They expected another new liberal opposition party to win 12-14 seats.

The polls suggested the ruling People Power Party and its satellite party were projected to win 85-105 seats.

HERE’S WHAT SOUTH KOREANS ARE CONCERNED ABOUT AS THEY VOTE FOR PARLIAMENT THIS WEEK

Wednesday’s election was widely seen as a mid-term confidence vote on President Yoon, a former top prosecutor who took office in 2022 for a single five-year term.

He has pushed hard to boost cooperation with the U.S. and Japan as a way to address a mix of tough security and economic challenges. But Yoon has been grappling with low approval ratings at home and a liberal opposition-controlled parliament that has limited his major policy platforms.

Regardless of the results, Yoon will stay in power and his major foreign policies will likely be unchanged. But the ruling party’s big election defeat could set back Yoon’s domestic agenda and leave him facing intensifying political offensive by his liberal opponents.

South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung

South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, center, speaks to reporters after watching results of exit polls for the parliamentary election at the National Assembly on April 10, 2024, in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Pool Photos via AP)

If the opposition parties garner combined 200 seats — two-thirds of the 300 parliamentary seats at stake — or more, they will have legislative powers to pass bills vetoed by a president and can even impeach him.

“We did our best to do politics that follow public sentiments, but results of exit polls are disappointing,” ruling party Han Dong-hoon said in televised comments. “We’ll watch ballot counting to the end.”

After looking at TV broadcasts showing results of the exit polls together, Democratic Party members cheered and clapped their hands. “We’ll humbly watch the people’s choices to the end. Thanks much!” party leader Lee Jae-myung told reporters.

Of the 300 seats, 254 will be elected through direct votes in local districts, and the other 46 to the parties according to their proportion of the vote. The final voter turnout for South Korea’s 44 million eligible voters was tentatively estimated at 67%, the highest for a parliamentary election since 1992, according to the National Election Commission.

Ahead of the election, the conservatives and their liberal rivals exchanged toxic rhetoric and mudslinging. Their mutual contempt deepened during the 2022 presidential election, during which Yoon and Lee, then the Democratic Party candidate, spent months demonizing each other. Yoon eventually beat Lee in the country’s most closely fought presidential contest.

Lee is now a harsh critic of Yoon’s policies and is eying another presidential bid. His main potential conservative rival in the next presidential race is Han, an ally of Yoon who served as his justice minister. Lee faces an array of corruption investigations that he argues are politically motivated and pushed by by Yoon’s government.

There was a brief soul-searching about South Korea’s divisive politics after Lee was stabbed in the neck in January by a man who, according to police, tried to kill Lee to prevent him from becoming president. But as the parliamentary election approached, the rival parties began churning out abusive rhetoric and crude insults against each other.

During the election campaigning, Han called Lee “a criminal” and labeled his past comments as “trash.” Lee’s party spokesperson described Han’s mouth as a “trash bin.” Han accused Lee of using a sexist remark against a female ruling party candidate.

Chung Jin-young, a former dean of the Graduate School of Pan-Pacific International Studies at Kyung Hee University, predicted that the opposition parties could win a combined 150-180 seats.

“That would cause a political deadlock for the Republic of Korea for the next three years, as both the ruling and opposition parties can’t pursue things unilaterally and won’t likely make terms with each other,” Chung said.

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Earlier this year, Yoon saw rising approval ratings over his strong push to drastically increase the number of medical students despite vehement protests by incumbent doctors. Yoon has said he aims to create more doctors to brace for the country’s rapidly aging population, but thousands of young doctors have gone on strike, saying that schools can’t handle an abrupt increase in students.

The doctors’ walkouts eventually left Yoon facing growing calls to find a compromise, with patients and others experiencing delays of surgeries and other inconveniences. Yoon’s ruling party has also been struggling with rising prices of agricultural products and other goods and criticism of Yoon’s personnel management style.

“This election is an assessment of Yoon’s presidency. The stakes for him are whether he’s able to fully implement his liberal democratic agenda, which is his top priority,” Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said. “He and his party have criticized the previous progressive party for democratic backsliding.”

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