The ballots are still being counted, but it is apparent that the conservative New Frontier Party will remain the largest party in Korea’s National Assembly.

A South Korean elderly woman casts her vote for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 11, 2012. (AP photo)

As of midnight, the Chosun Ilbo projects that the NFP will hold 152 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats.  The progressive Democratic Unified Party is ahead in 127 races while its junior partner, the leftist United Progressive Party, will pick up 13 for a total of 141.  The regional conservative Liberty Forward Party is projected to get five seats while independents will win the remaining three.

While the results show a drop in support for the NFP compared to the 2008 elections, they are a pleasant surprise for a party that was expecting to receive an electoral beating only a couple of months ago.  That turnaround can be attributed to leadership and hard campaigning of NFP chairwoman Park Geun-hye, missteps in the DUP’s nomination process, and the DUP’s mishandling of issues like the recently approved free trade agreement with the United States.

While several of the races are extremely close and can change with late returns fromt the hand-counted ballots, there are a few things that can be noted now:

The Fate of some Big-Wigs (and one who used to be one)

  • Park Geun-hye is high on the NFP’s proportional representation list (which accounts for 54 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats), so she is safely in.  Furthermore, the election results make her quest for the party’s presidential nomination later this year unstoppable.  Only Park Geun-hye can stop Park Geun-hye at this point.
  • Former DUP chair Chung Sye-kyun won easier in Jongno, Seoul.  The district is considered the political heart of Korea because it includes the presidential mansion and Gyeongbukgung, Korea’s last main royal palace before the 1905 Japanese occupation.  The win will raise Chung’s profile and give any presidential ambitions he has a boost.
  • Moon Jae-in, one of the leading candidates on the left for the presidency, won his race in Busan, despite a spirited challenge from political novice Son Su-jo.  However, his project to make major inroads in Busan for progressives failed.  The DUP only gained three of the city’s 18 seats while the NFP won the other 15.
  • DUP presidential nominee Chung Dong-young was crushed in his quixotic attempt to win a seat in the conservative Gangnam district in Seoul.  Perhaps this will finally put a stake in Chung’s political career.
  • Speaking of the political undead.  Rhee In-jae, who is probably the most detested man in Korean politics, has survived another election.  This time he won with the minor Liberty Forward party, beating back challengers from the DUP and NFP.

If these results hold, we can expect Park Geun-hye’s star to rise further and for the DUP’s leadership to fall on their swords.

One interesting result of this election is that Korea appears to finally be falling in with Duverger’s law, which states that electoral systems that are primarily single-member districts tend to create two-party rule.  It has taken several elections since the restoration of democratic rule in 1987, but it looks like we finally have two clearly dominant parties with the rest just picking of scraps.  That is especially clear when you note that several of the seats that the minor UPP won tonight were gifted to them as a result of their alliance with the DUP.