In a result confounding pundits, South Korea's ruling conservatives lost their parliamentary majority in Wednesday's election, after earlier predictions suggested President Park Geun-hye's party would easily win.
The result could seriously jeopardize an economic reform program Park wants to push through before her term ends next year, which would introduce economic deregulation and labor reforms in response to the country's stagnant economy.
It could also be a sign of South Korean elections being progressively less impacted by North Korea, which conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and has continued with high profile ballistic missile tests despite heightened United Nations (UN) sanctions — and which will likely be delighted by Park's loss, having publicly branded her an "old, insane bitch."
Park has taken a hardline stance towards the North, a position which benefited conservatives during the 2008 election but which this time round has been less relevant as ideology has taken a backseat to domestic issues, according to the Korea Herald.
Her Saenuri party was likely to end with 125 seats in the 300-seat assembly, according to National Election Commission preliminary results released around 1600 GMT. Its main opposition Minjoo Party was expected to win 119, while a breakaway from Minjoo known as the People's Party is expected to claim 39.
"Our party has clearly given appeal for majority of seats. I'm really afraid that it didn't happen, and we know that there has been a lot of mistakes in our party regarding this issue. In any case, we will speak out after the final results come out," Saenuri party's floor leader, Won Yoo-chul told Reuters.
The possible loss for Park's party comes despite recent revelations of high-profile defections from the North, including a colonel involved in espionage against the South who defected in 2015 and has been hailed as the most highest ranking official ever to defect. More recently, 13 North Koreans working in a restaurant in China run by the North Korean government arrived in South Korea's capital Seoul.
After the defections were disclosed last week, critics of Park suggested the announcement regarding the colonel had been deliberately timed to win political capital ahead of the election. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, it was reported South Korea had rejected a request from the North to send the 13 restaurant workers to Pyongyang. The North Korean government has referred to them as being "kidnapped."
The election result will likely be greeted with fervor in North Korea. Park has continued to strongly criticize the North over its continued tests of ballistic missiles, and North Korea's state news agency KCNA has levelled a series of jibes at her, including branding her a "senile granny" and an "old, insane bitch" in recent months.
Those comments have come amid heightened saber rattling from the North Korean regime, whose leader Kim Jong-un last month ordered his country to be ready for imminent nuclear warfare in the wake of the United Nations Security Council issuing harsh new sanctions on the country intended to end its nuclear program.
Kim's regime has claimed the January nuclear test was in fact a hydrogen bomb, though experts have said the blast was too small for that to be the case.
North Korea has fired ballistic missiles on at least five occasions since the January nuclear test, and earlier this month Kim claimed his country had rocket engines capable of striking the United States with nuclear weapons.
A victory for Park would have paved the way for her selected successor to claim victory in next year's presidential election, with presidents only permitted to serve a single five-year term.
But Park's promises upon taking office in 2012 of using the services sector, creative industries, and technology start-ups to deliver an economic transformation similar to the rapid industrialization of the 1970s and 1980s have not been realized.
Meanwhile, reforms aimed at reducing chronic youth unemployment have been stymied by political in-fighting. The predicted election result would seriously hamper any attempts by Park to force through further measures before relinquishing her role in 2017.
"If the result holds, there will be more policy gridlock," James Kim, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul think tank, told the Wall Street Journal.
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