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Politics

Crushing defeat to force South Korean opposition to reunite

Conservative leaders step down after handing progressives big win

Democratic Party of Korea chair Choo Mi-ae high-fives supporters on the campaign trail. The progressive ruling party won South Korea's regional elections on June 13 by a landslide.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea's conservatives are facing pressure to overcome the rifts caused by the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye following their crushing defeat in Wednesday's local elections.

The leaders of two South Korean conservative parties -- Hong Jun-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party and Yoo Seong-min of the Bareunmirae Party -- both said Thursday that they will step down to take responsibility for the loss.

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea won 14 of 17 mayoral and gubernatorial races on Wednesday, including for Seoul, Incheon and the metropolitan province of Gyeonggi, while conservative parties secured just two. The progressive party also won 11 of 12 parliamentary seats in by-elections held the same day. Voter turnout was 60.2%, up from 56.8% in the last regional elections four years ago.

"We thank you for giving us your overwhelming support," Democratic Party leader Choo Mi-ae said in her victory speech on Thursday. According to local reports, this is the progressives' biggest-ever victory since nationwide regional elections begain in 1995.

The results reflect the support for President Moon Jae-in's efforts to thaw relations with North Korea, as well as continued distrust of the conservatives in light of Park's influence-peddling scandal. That the conservatives split into multiple parties in the aftermath of the scandal weakened them further at the polls.

Conservative voters want the parties to merge back into one. But none of the parties have a strong candidate who could spearhead such efforts. There is speculation that Jeju Gov. Won Hee-ryong, who was re-elected as an independent, will launch a new party to bring the country's conservatives back together.

Meanwhile, eight of the 17 newly elected mayors and governors are under suspicion of violating election laws, according to South Korean prosecutors. Such allegations are par for the course in South Korean elections. But the winners could lose their posts should a court find them guilty.

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