SKorea ruling conservatives suffer upset defeat in parliamentary vote

Members of the ruling Saenuri Party watch a television report on an exit poll of the new members of the National Assembly elections at the party's headquarters on April 13, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun | Getty Images

South Korea's ruling conservative party suffered an upset defeat in a parliamentary election on Wednesday, local media said early on Thursday based on election commission data, in a stinging blow to President Park Geun-hye.

The loss by Park's Saenuri Party, which had been expected to regain a majority, will mean her government will face more deadlock in the National Assembly as she tries to push through her legislative agenda to boost a sluggish economy.

The defeat is also likely to dent prospects for the party to field a winning candidate in the presidential vote scheduled late next year to succeed Park for a single five-year term.

Saenuri Party took 122 of the 300 seats in the single-chamber National Assembly, while the main opposition Minjoo Party won 123 seats and the People's Party grabbed 38, KBS television and Yonhap news said.

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The National Election Commission had not formally announced the final result as of 2130 GMT with 99.9 percent of the votes counted.

"Saenuri Party humbly accepts the result of the election," the party said in a statement. "We failed to read the people's mind when the people were full of disappointment and rebuke."

The country has a strong presidential system with a national leader who is constitutionally limited to a single term but has control over domestic and foreign policy.

Turnout was higher than in two previous elections, defying expectations of analysts and politicians who thought discontent over a sluggish economy, and political squabbling that resulted in a four-year legislative term considered one of the least productive ever, would keep voters away.

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Saenuri held half of the 292 seats in the outgoing assembly. Before recent defections, it held a majority with 157 of the 300 seats.

Voters expressed frustration that parliament had neglected issues such as jobs and national security in Asia's fourth largest economy and focused more on protecting political interests.

"I hope that parliament will be more mature to mirror the maturity of the voters and that politics can be used for the welfare of children and young people," said Kim Jeong-yeon, 46, after casting her vote in Seoul.

Park's legislative agenda had been bogged down in a parliament deadlocked by feuding and she had blamed both sides for hamstringing her push to boost growth, create jobs and get on with structural reforms.

South Korea's economy grew 2.6 percent last year and youth unemployment reached 12.5 percent in February, the highest since the government started keeping records in 1999, compared with single-digit joblessness in other age groups.

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