Anticipation is building in Seoul ahead of the Oct. 11 by-election to choose the head of the capital city’s western district of Gangseo, which the two major parties’ strategists believe will offer a preview of the general election in April next year.
The trends in early voting, which wrapped up Sunday, indicate a surprisingly high level of enthusiasm among voters.
According to the National Election Commission, 113,313 voters -- or 22.6 percent of the 500,603 registered voters in the constituency of Gangseo -- cast ballots for the first two days of early voting, representing an all-time high for any by-election or regional election.
The by-election would fill the vacancy of Gangseo-gu’s head office, after its previous occupant, the ruling party’s Kim Tae-woo, was removed following a criminal conviction. The court in May sentenced Kim to a suspended jail term for leaking official secrets after he blew the whistle on former President Moon Jae-in’s Cheong Wa Dae.
Kim is seeking to claim the office for a second time, running against his Democratic Party of Korea rival Jin Gyo-hoon, who served as the deputy chief of the National Police Agency under the Moon administration.
The ruling People Power Party candidate’s support in the race for the Seoul district has consistently fallen short of that of the Democratic Party candidate. Jin is leading Kim by a significant margin of nearly 10 percentage points, a string of public opinion polls show.
With its candidate lagging behind in polls, the People Power Party has tried to play down the significance of the election and its implications for the general election next year.
Yoon Hee-suk, the People Power Party’s spokesperson, said in a radio interview ahead of the weekend that Gangseo was a “traditionally a Democratic Party-leaning district.” “Imagine if the by-election was being held in Gangnam, where our party has a strong base, instead. Winning in Gangnam wouldn’t be construed as a holistic picture of voter sentiment in Seoul,” he said.
The Democratic Party on the other hand has characterized the by-election as an “opportunity to teach the Yoon Suk Yeol administration a lesson.”
“The impact of this election extends far beyond Gangseo-gu. This election is about letting the Yoon administration. The South Korean people are not happy with how the president is running the country,” the opposition party’s floor leader Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo told a rally of supporters in Gangseo over the weekend.
Parties are already at work to woo voters in Seoul, where the battle is predicted to be fiercest in the general election six months away. The Gangseo by-election may provide a sneak peek into voter feelings in the capital city that has some 40 members in the National Assembly.
Losing the election would be critical for the People Power Party leadership, currently helmed by the chair Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon. It would be hard for the party chair to avoid facing accountability for handing the nomination to the party’s candidate Kim Tae-woo, who is responsible for costing the party the office in the first place following his criminal conviction.