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PoliticsSouth Korea

South Korea: Opposition set to boost majority — exit polls

April 10, 2024

South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party is set to increase its parliamentary majority, according to exit polls. After a polarizing and personal campaign, the result is a blow for President Yoon Suk Yeol.

A woman casts her vote for the parliamentary election at a local polling station in Seoul
Pre-election surveys indicate that the liberal opposition parties will likely maintain a dominant positionImage: Lee Jin-man/AP/picture alliance

South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party (DP) and its liberal allies looked set to increase their majority in the country's parliament on Wednesday after initial exit polls projected up to 197 seats in the 300-seat legislature, up from 156.

Voters in South Korea cast their ballots in legislative elections that have largely been seen as a test of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol's popularity.

But with Yoon's governing People Power Party (PPP) and its affiliates only projected to win 85-100 votes, down from 114, the failure to restore a parliamentary majority could now see the president become a lame duck for the rest of a term that lasts until 2027.

PPP leader Han Dong-hoon told Yonhap News Agency that "exit polls are disappointing ... We will watch the vote count."

Opposition DP leader Lee Jae-myung, who survived a knife attack in January during which he was stabbed in the neck, said: "I'll watch the people's choice with a humble heart."

Opposition look set to dominate parliament

"If the DP or other liberal opposition parties secure over 150 seats — that's half of those in the national assembly — they would be able to slowly pass budget bills and laws, catching the attention of the public," explained journalist Grace Shin, speaking to DW ahead of the exit polls.

"If they hold more than 200, they could even amend constitutions, dismiss legislators, and even dismiss the president and nullify President Yoon's veto," explained Shin.

The newly founded Rebuilding Korea party, launched by disgraced former justice minister Cho Kuk, was forecast to secure 12 to 14 seats.

Cho, who ran on a staunchly anti-government platform despite facing a jail term for corruption, is expected to ally with the DP, which could give the combined opposition a "supermajority" of more than 200 seats.

"The people have won, the will to judge Yoon Suk Yeol is very clear," Cho said after the vote, according to local media.

Since taking office, Yoon has vetoed nine bills passed by parliament, including one in favor of a special probe into First Lady Kim Keon Hee's alleged involvement in stock price manipulation.

Official results are not expected to be released until the early hours of Thursday, but exit polls conducted jointly by three leading South Korean television networks KBS, MBC and SBS have proven broadly accurate in previous elections.

What's behind new tensions between North and South Korea

What was the background to the vote?

Since he took office in 2022 for a single five-year term, President Yoon has been hampered by low approval ratings and a liberal opposition-controlled parliament that has thwarted his policy platform.

Ahead of the election, Yoon's conservative supporters and their liberal rivals traded toxic rhetoric in a sign of a deepening political polarization. 

Yoon's proposed healthcare reforms are backed by many voters but have precipitated a damaging strike by doctors, as well as a pledge to abolish a gender equality ministry.

A deep conservative-liberal division worsened during the country's 2022 presidential election. The battle between Yoon and his main liberal rival Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party, became personal. Yoon eventually beat Lee by a wafer-thin margin.

China, North Korea — and onions

Pre-election surveys show that the liberal opposition parties are likely to hold onto a strong position in South Korea's single-chamber, 300-member National Assembly.

The 60-year-old Lee is also under investigation over a string of allegations, including alleged bribery linked to illicit transfers to North Korea. Lee, whose party favors a less hawkish stance on North Korea and who has made several pro-China remarks, denies all charges.

Lee's DP has also seized on a gaffe by Yoon last month as he talked about the "reasonable" cost of green onions. 

The staple in Korean cooking has recently soared in price, and the comment led to criticism that the president was out of touch.

mf/ab (AFP, AP)