South Korea’s conservative ruling party has suffered a demoralising defeat in by-elections seen as a test before parliamentary and presidential polls next year.
Three parliamentary seats, one provincial governorship and local posts were contested in Wednesday’s by-elections, with results declared late in the evening.
In the most closely-watched contest – at Bundang, a conservative stronghold south of Seoul – the leader of the main opposition left-leaning Democratic Party (DP) triumphed.
Sohn Hak-Kyu got 51 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating Kang Jae-Sup, the candidate and former head of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP).
Sohn’s win bolstered his status as a potential presidential candidate in the December 2012 poll. A general election will be held in April next year.
“I think this is an order from voters who yearn for change,” Yonhap news agency quoted Sohn as saying.
The DP also won the governorship of Gangwon province.
But GNP candidate Kim Tae-Ho achieved victory against the odds in a second parliamentary by-election, at Gimhae near the southeast coast. He defeated Lee Bong-Soo, an opposition candidate.
Gimhae is the home town of former left-leaning President Roh Moo-Hyun, who committed suicide in 2009 when his family became the subject of a graft probe.
Kim’s victory was notable in a district where Roh is fondly remembered.
The GNP did not contest a third parliamentary seat in an opposition stronghold. The outcome of Wednesday’s polls does not endanger its overwhelming parliamentary majority.
But analysts said President Lee Myung-Bak, whose single term under the constitution ends in February 2013, may face calls for a cabinet shake-up to avoid becoming seen as a lame duck.
“(The outcome) reflects desire for change,” Kim Hyung-Joon, professor of political science at Seoul’s Myongji University told Yonhap news agency. “It reflects calls for the president to change his handling of state affairs.”