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By-elections seen as litmus test for 2020 parliamentary elections

Citizens of Changwon-Seongsan and Tongyeong-Goseong on Wednesday headed to cast their ballots for lawmakers to represent the districts in South Gyeongsang Province, in a by-election widely considered a litmus test for next year’s general elections.

Contenders in both regions in South Gyeongsang Province, located some 400-450 kilometers southeast of the capital, have vowed to revive sluggish local economies.

“Though the size of the by-election is small, it will give us a glimpse of the sentiment in South Gyeongsang Province ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections,” said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University.

“The overall voter turnout in the Changwon district is also very important. Previously, higher voter turnout meant stronger support from left-leaning younger generation voters. But in this case, higher voter turnout of those in their 20s would mean increased dissatisfaction with the Moon administration,” Shin added.

The seat for Seongsan-gu in Changwon City has been vacant since late liberal politician Roh Hoe-chan took his life last year, amid a probe into allegations he and a number of politicians had received illegal political funding.

Although liberal parties lay claim to the district, Kang Ki-youn of the Saenuri Party, the predecessor of the Liberty Korea Party, won in Seongsan-gu with 49 percent of votes in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

In a strategic move aimed at consolidating liberal votes, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the left-leaning Justice Party fielded a single candidate for Changwon, the Justice Party’s Yeo Young-guk, to compete against the main opposition’s Kang Ki-youn.

A voter casts ballot at a polling place set up at an apartment complex in Seongsan-gu, Changwon city on Wednesday morning, in the April by-election widely considered a litmus test for next year's general elections. (Yonhap)
A voter casts ballot at a polling place set up at an apartment complex in Seongsan-gu, Changwon city on Wednesday morning, in the April by-election widely considered a litmus test for next year's general elections. (Yonhap)

Meanwhile, candidates for Goseong county of Tongyeong city -- Jeong Jeom-sig of the Liberty Korea Party and Yang Moon-seok of the Democratic Party -- were in a tight race in the lead-up to the election, according to pollsters.

In the past few years, changes in political preferences have emerged in the traditionally right-leaning region, with liberal contender Kang Seok-ju taking the post of ninth Tongyeong mayor and Lee Kyung-il the post of the 36th Goseong County governor last year.

Meanwhile, the by-election is the first leadership test for Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn, whose approval rating as the next presidential candidate ranked No. 1 with 21.1 percent of support in a recent survey by local pollster Real Meter.

Hwang, who was elected party chairman in February, has been mired in a slew of controversies, from his alleged link to ex-Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui’s sexual bribery in 2013, when he was justice minister, to violation of the K-League’s ban on campaigning inside football stadiums over the weekend, which saw GyeongnamFC being slapped with a 20 million won fine.

Ex-Seoul Mayor Oh Sae-hoon’s comments about late politician Roh have prompted the Justice Party -- which prides itself on carrying on Roh’s advocacy of human rights -- to consider legal actions against Oh for defamation of the deceased.

“In the campaign, the Justice Party often mentions the spirit of Roh Hoe-chan. Honestly, it’s not something it should be proud of. … He (Roh Hoe-chan) is a person who took his own life after accepting money,” Oh said while stumping for the Liberty Korea Party candidate in Changwon.

The turnout for early voting held Feb. 29-30 recorded 14.71 percent, the highest-ever since the system was implemented in 2013, and 8.47 percent higher than the 2017 by-election, according to National Election Commission.

Following the by-election, political parties are widely expected to speed up discussions of 10 key bills on the fast-track that are stuck in a political deadlock, due to differing opinions on the scope of authority that should be given to the independent investigative agency charged with investigating wrongdoings of powerful government officials and their families, as part of efforts to root out corruption. 

By Kim Bo-gyung (