South Koreans voted on Wednesday in regional and mayoral elections seen as a referendum on embattled President Park Geun-hye and her government’s handling of a ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people in April.
The sinking of the ferry Sewol has sidelined traditional campaign issues, such as jobs, education and welfare, and focused attention on a debate over the perceived failure of Asia’s fourth-largest economy to enforce safety standards.
“Having seen the lax response to the Sewol incident by the government, I’m giving the opposition a chance this time as a way to reproach the government,” 23-year-old Kim Soo-hyun said after casting her vote in the capital, Seoul.
Park’s approval ratings fell sharply from 61 to 46 per cent in the days after the April 16 ferry disaster – her lowest since coming to power in February last year – and show little sign of improving.
Opposition candidates look set to win key mayoral races in Seoul, neighbouring Incheon and Busan in the southeast, but Park’s ruling conservative New Frontier Party is unlikely to suffer landslide defeats.
Polls by Gallup Korea in late May suggested more than 40 per cent of voters still support the New Frontier Party. Only 28 per cent said they supported the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).
About 40 per cent of voters in South Korea are older than 50 and traditionally vote conservative – unlike younger voters, who are less likely to cast ballots.
By the halfway point of voting at noon, 23.3 per cent of South Korea’s 41.3 million voters had cast ballots, according to the National Election Commission.
The commission projected a final voter turnout of less than 60 per cent, slightly higher than the last elections in 2010.
The opposition has been careful not to campaign on the government’s handling of the disaster because distrust of politicians has increased across the board. The elections are the first nationwide polls since Park took office.
The New Frontier Party staked its campaign on President Park’s pledge to reform government bureaucracy and improve safety oversight, arguing that the ferry disaster presented an opportunity for change.
“Korea after the Sewol disaster must be different from Korea before the disaster,” said senior New Frontier Party official Lee Wan-koo. “We need to reform this country ... and create a safe country.”
Liberal Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, of the NPAD, held a 10 percentage point lead over his conservative rival and was expected to retain his post, seen by some as a springboard to the presidency.
The Sewol ferry sank on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju on April 16. More than 300 people were killed, most of them students from the Danwon High School on the outskirts of Seoul.
The ferry was heavily overloaded, travelling too fast on a turn and many of its crew abandoned ship as the children waited in their cabins as they had been instructed.