SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party (GNP) chief quit on Thursday to take responsibility for the poor showing in local elections, trying to contain the impact on President Lee Myung-bak’s pro-business reforms.
The president’s office did not comment, but Lee said on Tuesday he would stick to his reform agenda once the elections were over, including cleaning up bureaucracy and cutting taxes, and the poll results were not expected to derail those plans.
The opposition Democratic Party won seven of 16 major races for the country’s largest cities and the provinces in an upset that surprised GNP and analysts who had been expecting a large win for the conservative ruling party.
Lee’s uncompromising stand against North Korea after blaming it for sinking one of its navy ships had seen him and the GNP bounce back in opinion polls from a voter backlash after a decision to scrap a plan to shift a large part of the government from Seoul and rows over U.S. beef imports and a river project.
The GNP candidate narrowly defeated a Democrat in the race for Seoul mayor but the incumbent conservative lost in the giant port city of Incheon just west of the capital.
The current GNP governor of the Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul that is home to more than 11 million kept his office.
But the GNP was shut out in the rest of the country except in its tradition stronghold of the southeast in what analysts saw as sign of voter disillusionment with some of Lee’s policies.
“We humbly accept the voice of the Korean people of rebuke,” GNP chief Chung Mong-joon told a leadership meeting. “I want to take this chance to express my wish to resign.”
Chung has been considered a leading candidate to succeed Lee and was expected to run again as party chief in June.
Voting for nearly 4,000 mayors, governors and local government representatives has been overshadowed by the March sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan, fuelling shrill rhetoric from North and South Korea, including threats of war.
South Korea and the United States are to hold a naval military exercise next week, about a month ahead of schedule, to “demonstrate the strong willingness by both Seoul and Washington to deter North Korea” from further provocations, the JoongAng Daily said on Thursday, quoting military officials.
North Korea denies responsibility and has regularly accused the South of staging the torpedo attack to help Lee in the local elections.
Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie