In what many consider to be a backlash against the recent “coup d’etat” sponsored by the far-right-wing Grand National Party, in which President Roh Moo Hyun was impeached for minor electioneering violations, South Korean voters handed a stunning victory to Roh’s Uri Party and elected a left-of-center legislature for the first time in over four decades. The April 15 election results were a big defeat for the right.

The Grand National Party (GNP), which previously controlled the parliament, is the organization most closely connected to the military dictatorship that ruled South Korea until the 1980s. The main reason given for Roh’s impeachment was illegal electioneering – he said in public that he was not a member of the Uri Party but would like to be. The court said that, while such a comment was not proper, it did not constitute a felony.

Many observers saw Roh’s impeachment – which included the physical exclusion of many of his supporters from the parliament chambers during the impeachment vote – as an attempt to remove a popularly-elected president that the GNP perceived as too pro-labor and too friendly towards the northern half of the nation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A full seven out of 10 South Koreans were opposed to the impeachment, and thousands – at times millions – of people filled the streets in mass demonstrations from the day of the impeachment until Election Day, even though such gatherings were declared illegal.

The elections, as well as the street demonstrations, sent a clear message that the impeachment was against the wishes of the South Korean people. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court said that impeachment proceedings would continue. Like the United States, the parliament and the president are elected separately, so the elections had no official impact on the impeachment hearings. Experts say they could go on for months.

The recent elections were a major power shift from right to left. Previously, the GNP had been the majority party. However, after April 15, Roh’s left-of-center Uri Party tripled its size to 152 seats – an absolute majority of the 299-member parliament. The GNP was down to 121 seats, and the centrist Millennium Democratic Party, Roh’s former party and formerly second largest bloc in parliament, dropped to only nine seats. A new left, antiwar, labor-based party, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), gained 10 seats.

An official was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency as saying that the DLP’s presence in parliament was small, but probably would not be merely symbolic. He added that the DLP, which supports taxing the rich to fund better social programs, could have a major impact on economic policy.

The power shift will almost certainly affect North-South friendship and reunification efforts. Rodung Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers Party of Korea, the North’s leading party, said that the “election returns mean the victory of the historic June 15 joint declaration in South Korea.” This refers to the declaration made between the two states in 2002, when they pledged to work together independently for unification and for peace, as well as to cooperate on such issues as family reunification. “Taken as a whole,” the statement continued, “the results of the election are a victory won by the people in the fight with the forces opposed to democracy.”

While President Roh attempted to conduct a “sunshine policy” of dialogue and friendship with the North, the GNP-dominated parliament attempted to stymie many of his efforts. With the new parliament, this most likely will not be the case.

Also, according to the New York Times, Bush administration officials are worried that the elections will weaken South Korea’s resolve to keep its 3,000 troops in Iraq. U.S. officials have good reason to be worried. Even though the Uri Party officially supported sending troops to Iraq, “many of its younger members have been calling for broader independence from American influence,” said an article in the mainstream Korea Herald. “They have hinted at reconsidering their support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, mainly on the issue of the troop commitment.” The article went on to say that Kim Geun-tae, a Uri Party leader, said that if the situation in Iraq deteriorates further, “we may have to look into it again.”

According to the Yonhap News Agency, Kim also said, “The situation is that a clear and thorough re-examination is needed on deciding the mission purpose and its activity in Iraq.”

The author can be reached at dmargolis@cpusa.org.

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