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South Korea’s president promises reforms after opposition victory

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol promised “reform” and the head of his ruling party resigned on Thursday after a disastrous election increased the opposition’s stranglehold on parliament.

In addition to People Power Party (PPP) leader Han Dong-hoon, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and a string of senior aides also offered to step down, local media said.

The result has turned Yoon into a lame duck president for the remaining three years in office, just as the country is facing challenges including a weak economy and an increasingly aggressive North Korea, experts said.

“There will be even more extreme confrontation between Yoon and the opposition in the next parliament, especially with the election of candidates vowing a very hawkish stance on his administration,” said Shin Yul, professor of political science at Myongji University.

“It won’t be easy for people to see bipartisan cooperation,” he told AFP.

Yoon, 63, has taken a tough line with the nuclear-armed North while improving ties with Washington and former colonial occupier Japan.

But the former prosecutor is unloved among voters, with many angry at inequality, sky-high housing prices and youth unemployment in the nation of 51 million people.

The opposition also hammered Yoon after he called the price of green onions, a staple in Korean cooking, “reasonable” and a video of his wife accepting a $2,200 designer handbag was widely circulated.

“I will humbly honour the will of the people expressed in the general election, reform the state affairs, and do my best to stabilise the economy and people’s livelihood,” Yoon said, according to his chief of staff Lee Kwan-sup.

With all votes counted Thursday, results from the National Election Commission and major broadcasters showed Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) and its satellite sliding from 114 seats in parliament to just 108.

The big winners were Lee Jae-myung’s Democratic Party (DP) and its partner, which saw their seat tally rise to 175 from 156 in the outgoing legislature.

The newly-founded Rebuilding Korea party, led by former justice minister Cho Kuk, capitalised on discontent with the two main parties to pick up 12 seats.

The landslide was, however, less emphatic than suggested by exit polls, with all opposition parties combined falling short of a super-majority of 200 seats in the 300-strong National Assembly.

South Korea uses a mix of first-past-the-post seats and proportional representation and has one legislative chamber. Presidents can serve only one five-year term.

‘Discontent with Yoon’ 

The result is sweet revenge for Lee, 60, who narrowly lost a presidential election to Yoon in 2022 and in January was stabbed in the neck while on the campaign trail.

“This isn’t the Democratic Party’s victory but a great victory for the people,” the former factory worker said Thursday morning.

“Politicians on both sides of the aisle must pool our strength to deal with the current economic crisis. The Democratic Party will lead the way in solving the livelihood crisis,” he told reporters.

Lee has won support for policies including cash handouts to young adults, free school uniforms and maternity care.

He may now have another shot at the top job.

But critics call the former human rights lawyer a populist and point to a string of corruption allegations hanging over him that he has dismissed as politically motivated.

“The challenges Lee and DP face currently lurk more in the long run than in the short run. The popular support the party is currently garnering anchors on the overall discontent with Yoon,” said Byunghwan Son, professor at George Mason University.

“It remains to be seen if the popular support can be sustained when these limitations manifest themselves in the post-election period,” he told AFP.

Yoon had hoped the PPP would win a majority in parliament and push through his legislative agenda.

This includes planned healthcare reforms — that are backed by voters but have sparked a crippling strike by doctors — and a pledge to abolish the ministry of gender equality.

But the election results represent Yoon’s “biggest political crisis” since he took power, the conservative daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo said.

Even though the opposition missed out on a supermajority — two-thirds control of the parliament would have allowed them to try and impeach Yoon — the president remains in a precarious position.

If Yoon can’t find a way to work with the opposition, there is a “likelihood of impeachment, which some factions in the ruling party may comply with for the sake of their own political futures,” Chae Jin-won of Humanitas College at Kyung Hee University told AFP.

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