SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s ruling conservative Saenuri Party is expected to regain its parliamentary majority in elections next week despite a sluggish economy and gridlock that made the last legislative term one of the least productive ever.
A divided opposition, riven by infighting that led to a split in the main left-leaning party four months ago, has left many voters, especially younger ones facing record-high youth unemployment, disenchanted.
Expected low turnout on April 13 is likely to work to the advantage of President Park Geun-hye’s Saenuri Party, which holds half of the 292 seats in the National Assembly. Before recent defections, it held a majority with 157 seats.
A strong showing by Saenuri would raise expectations that it will field the winning candidate in a December 2017 presidential election to find a successor to Park at the end of her single-term five-year term.
Saenuri enjoys strong support among older voters and it has sought to cement that by emphasizing its tough position on North Korea following a spike in tension on the peninsula triggered by the North’s fourth nuclear test in January and a space rocket launch a month later.
The party has been doing well in opinion polls with 37 percent support, according to a Gallup Korea survey of 1,000 people released on April 1, compared with 21 percent for the main opposition Minjoo Party.
South Korea’s economy grew 2.6 percent last year and youth unemployment reached 12.5 percent in February, the highest since the government started keeping records in 1999, compared with single-digit joblessness in other age groups. [nL3N16N5UU]
The opposition is seen as unlikely to mount a serious challenge at the ballot box if disillusioned voters stay away.
“The Saenuri party has its solid support,” said Bok Geum-hee of the non-partisan Powerhouse of Future Korea, which campaigns for young people to vote.
“Moderate people might have come out to vote ... but they think the main opposition is no different from the Saenuri party.”
The country’s youngest lawmaker, Kim Kwang-jin, 34, of the Minjoo party, acknowledged that the opposition had failed to put up a leader with a compelling message to win over young voters, in contrast to someone like U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
“A lot of young people in their 20s and 30s are behind him, supporting his ideas and ideology ... We need someone attractive,” Kim told Reuters.
Park has blamed both sides in parliament for hamstringing her push to boost growth, create jobs, and get on with structural reforms she says are needed to fix chronic problems in Asia’s fourth largest economy.
During its four years, the outgoing parliament has been the most ineffective and slowest in passing legislation, according to the Korea Economic Research Institute think-tank, spending an average of 517 days to pass a law.
Just 40 percent of proposed bills were adopted, it said.
Voter frustration could see turnout lower than the previous record low of 46 percent, analysts say.
“Politicians can’t lay out realistic or specific plans and people are disappointed with that and have decided not to vote,” said Bae Hyun-joong, a 21-year old Seoul college student.
Parliamentary elections are held every four years in South Korea.
Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel