South Korean Ruling Party Wins Landslide in Local Elections

Oh Se-hoon, the candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, celebrates while watching a broadcast of the counting for the Seoul mayoral by-election at party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea on April 8, 2021. Song Kyung-Seok/Pool via Reuters
Oh Se-hoon, the candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, celebrates while watching a broadcast of the counting for the Seoul mayoral by-election at party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea on April 8, 2021. Song Kyung-Seok/Pool via Reuters
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South Korean Ruling Party Wins Landslide in Local Elections

Oh Se-hoon, the candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, celebrates while watching a broadcast of the counting for the Seoul mayoral by-election at party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea on April 8, 2021. Song Kyung-Seok/Pool via Reuters
Oh Se-hoon, the candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, celebrates while watching a broadcast of the counting for the Seoul mayoral by-election at party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea on April 8, 2021. Song Kyung-Seok/Pool via Reuters

South Korea's ruling party won a landslide victory in local elections for leaders of major cities and provinces, official results showed Thursday, giving newly elected president Yoon Suk-yeol a significant boost.

An avowed anti-feminist and political novice, Yoon won the March presidential election by just 0.7 percent -- the narrowest margin ever -- and faces an opposition-controlled National Assembly that has vowed to closely scrutinize his policies, AFP said.

But Yoon's People Power Party won 12 of the 17 major posts up for grabs in elections held Wednesday for mayors and provincial governors, including the capital Seoul and the country's second-largest city, Busan.

The PPP's current Seoul mayor, Oh Se-hoon, was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote, while the PPP's Park Heong-joon was re-elected mayor of Busan with 66.4 percent.

Yoon thanked South Koreans for the "successful completion" of the elections on Thursday.

"I want to accept the results of this election as the will of the people to revive the economy and take better care of the people's livelihood," Kang In-sun, Yoon's spokeswoman, quoted him as saying.

Public sentiment has soured on the opposition Democratic Party's former president Moon Jae-in and his administration, which have been blamed for soaring housing prices in Seoul -- up nearly 120 percent during his time in office.

In parliamentary by-elections, the PPP took five of the seven seats up for grabs in the National Assembly, although the opposition Democratic Party still holds the majority.

The PPP's Ahn Cheol-soo, who withdrew from the presidential race to support Yoon, secured a seat representing a district in Seongnam, just south of Seoul.

Lee Jae-myung, who was the DP's presidential candidate, was also elected to parliament representing a district in the port city of Incheon.

- Public approval -
Experts said the landslide win gives Yoon the public approval he needs to push his agenda, despite lacking a majority in the parliament.

"The public has ruled against the Democrats, who have massive control within the National Assembly," Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University told AFP.

"Yoon and his administration will now have more confidence to push forward their policies, despite hitting a roadblock in the parliament, knowing that the public has their back."

The DP, which took 14 of the mayoral and gubernatorial posts in the last election in 2018, only won five key races this time, including three in its southern stronghold of Jeolla.

The electoral setback comes as the party struggles with internal rifts, prompted largely by rising star and interim chief Park Ji-hyun's call for reform following its defeat in the presidential election.

It also expelled one of its lawmakers earlier this month over allegations of sexual misconduct.

The DP's former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon -- who was a vocal advocate for women's rights -- took his own life in 2020 after facing an allegation of sexual abuse.

Oh Keo-don, the party's former mayor of Busan, was also forced to resign for sexually assaulting a female staffer.

"We received our second punishment after the presidential election," said DP interim chief Park.

"The results were worse than we thought."



Israeli Supreme Court Says Ultra-Orthodox Men Must Serve in Military

A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
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Israeli Supreme Court Says Ultra-Orthodox Men Must Serve in Military

A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)

Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men for military service, a decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition as Israel continues to wage war in Gaza. 

The court ruled that in the absence of a law that distinguishes between Jewish seminary students and other draftees, Israel’s compulsory military service system applies to the ultra-Orthodox like any other citizens. 

Under longstanding arrangements, ultra-Orthodox men have been exempt from the draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish men and women. These exemptions have long been a source of anger among the secular public, a divide that has widened during the eight-month-old war, as the military has called up tens of thousands of soldiers and says it needs all the manpower it can get. Over 600 soldiers have been killed. 

Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, key partners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, oppose any change in the current system. If the exemptions are ended, they could bolt the coalition, causing the government to collapse and leading to new elections. 

During arguments, government lawyers told the court that forcing ultra-Orthodox men to enlist would “tear Israeli society apart.” 

The court decision comes at a sensitive time, as the war in Gaza drags on into its ninth month and the number of dead soldiers continues to mount. 

The court found that the state was carrying out “invalid selective enforcement, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law, and the principle according to which all individuals are equal before the law.” 

It did not say how many ultra-Orthodox should be drafted. 

The court also ruled that state subsidies for seminaries where exempted ultra-Orthodox men study should remain suspended. The court temporarily froze the seminary budgets earlier this year. 

In a post on the social media platform X, cabinet minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, who heads one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, called the ruling “very unfortunate and disappointing.” He did not say whether his party would bolt the government. 

“The state of Israel was established in order to be a home for the Jewish people whose Torah is the bedrock of its existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” he wrote. 

The ultra-Orthodox see their full-time religious study as their part in protecting the state of Israel. Many fear that greater contact with secular society through the military will distance adherents from strict observance of the faith. 

Ultra-Orthodox men attend special seminaries that focus on religious studies, with little attention on secular topics like math, English or science. Critics have said they are ill-prepared to serve in the military or enter the secular work force. 

Religious women generally receive blanket exemptions that are not as controversial, in part because women are not expected to serve in combat units. 

The ruling now sets the stage for growing friction within the coalition between those who support drafting more ultra-Orthodox and those who oppose the idea. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers are likely to face intense pressure from religious leaders and their constituents and may have to choose whether remaining in the government is worthwhile for them. 

Shuki Friedman, vice-president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank said the ultra-Orthodox “understand that they don’t have a better political alternative, but at same time their public is saying ‘why did we vote for you?’” 

The exemptions have faced years of legal challenges and a string of court decisions has found the system unjust. But Israeli leaders, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, have repeatedly stalled. It remains unclear whether Netanyahu will be able to do so again. 

Netanyahu’s coalition is buoyed by two ultra-Orthodox parties who oppose increasing enlistment for their constituents. The long-serving Israeli leader has tried to adhere to the court’s rulings while also scrambling to preserve his coalition. But with a slim majority of 64 seats in the 120-member parliament, he's often beholden to the pet issues of smaller parties. 

Netanyahu has been promoting a bill tabled by a previous government in 2022 that sought to address the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment. 

But critics say that bill was crafted before the war and doesn’t do enough to address a pressing manpower shortfall as the army seeks to maintain its forces in the Gaza Strip while also preparing for potential war with the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which has been fighting with Israel since the war in Gaza erupted last October. 

With its high birthrate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest-growing segment of the population, at about 4% annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 ultra-Orthodox males reach the conscription age of 18, but less than 10% enlist, according to the Israeli parliament’s State Control Committee.