SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean President Park Geun-hye has long been known as the "Queen of Elections" for a decades-long track record of steering her party to sometimes unlikely victories. Now, a crushing, shocking defeat in parliamentary elections sets up the fight of her political life.
In the last two years of her five-year presidency, Park must stave off lame duck status and keep a disintegrating party intact even as she tries to push an ambitious domestic policy through a hostile parliament.
Her conservative Saenuri Party's failure to gain a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly, where its 122 legislators will be one less than the main opposition Minjoo Party, likely threatens her much-criticized economic reforms, including plans to make it easier for companies to lay off workers. It also blows open next year's presidential race, which could shape up to be a referendum on her presidency.
Before Wednesday's vote, pollsters had predicted Saenuri would soundly beat a divided opposition and so open up a path to taking the presidency in December 2017 elections, as Park's single term expires.
The lackluster showing now likely deprives the party, at least temporarily, of any bankable candidate to field in next year's election. Party Chairman Kim Moo-sung, considered by many as a favorite to succeed Park, has offered to resign to take responsibility for the poor results. Former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon had been considered another potential presidential candidate for Saenuri, but he couldn't even win a lawmaker's seat on Wednesday in a city he once governed.
Saenuri's defeat may be partially attributed to voter reaction to Park's leadership style, which critics describe as heavy-handed and uncompromising. Voters may also be frustrated with the sluggish economy. Household debt has reached new highs and the unemployment rate for people under 30 is at levels unseen since the late 1990s, when millions lost their jobs during a crippling financial crisis.
Throughout her presidency, Park has continuously clashed with opposition lawmakers over laws and policies. She has also showed an inability to tolerate dissent within her own party, which has often inspired factional rifts.
She openly accused former Saenuri floor leader Yoo Seung Min of "betrayal" in a Cabinet meeting last year as she vetoed a bill aimed at giving lawmakers the authority to review government ordinances. She blamed Yoo for conceding to the opposition's push to pass the bill. Park's loyalists in the party then pressured Yoo to step down from his post, something he reluctantly did weeks later.
The conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said in a front page article on the election that an "angry" public "laid judgment on the Queen of Elections." It argued that the party's appeal was damaged by the intense infighting between Park's loyalists and reformists. That resulted in the departure from the party of several lawmakers, including Yoo, who ran as independents. Yoo won a seat.
Yul Shin, a politics professor at Seoul's Myongji University, said that growing anger over joblessness might have driven more young people to polling stations. The National Election Commission said 58 percent of the country's 42 million voters participated in Wednesday's election, a higher level than four years ago, when 54.2 percent of the electorate turned out. It wasn't immediately clear whether larger participation by younger voters contributed to the increase in turnout.
Park's government over the years has been held back by legislative gridlock, despite having the backing of the majority party in parliament. To get anything through an opposition-controlled assembly, Park now needs to find a way to engage and communicate with lawmakers and cooperate with them when needed, something critics say she has previously been unwilling to do.