North Korean Tension May Aid South’s Lee in Local Elections

South Koreans go to the polls tomorrow in local elections that are likely to give a victory to President Lee Myung Bak’s party, endorsing his hard-line stance against North Korea for the torpedoing of a warship.

The March 26 sinking of the Cheonan has dominated campaigning for the position of Seoul mayor and 3,892 other local government posts. Lee’s Grand National Party is leading the Democratic Party by 15.8 percentage points, according to a survey by researcher Realmeter released today.

Lee said South Korea will cut most trade with North Korea after a multinational team concluded on May 20 the North fired a torpedo that split the ship apart, killing 46 sailors. The incident has helped divert attention away from controversial domestic issues, such as a plan to develop four rivers that critics say will damage the environment, said Kang Won Taek, professor of political science at Soongsil University in Seoul.

“What should serve a mid-term test for the Lee Myung Bak administration has lost that function with the sinking incident as voters have been distracted from other domestic issues,” Kang said. “I wouldn’t say this is a Grand National Party ‘victory,’ but rather they fended off a failure.”

The Grand National Party’s lead over the Democratic Party narrowed to 8.3 percentage points in the week before the report on the sinking, according to Realmeter. Ruling party candidates for Seoul’s mayor and the governor of Gyeonggi province on the west coast near where the warship sank are showing double-digit leads over Democratic Party opponents, Realmeter surveys show.

The Grand National Party already controls 11 of the 16 mayoral and gubernatorial posts.

Rekindled awareness of security threats from North Korea will help Lee’s party regain support from conservatives, Kang said. The government will try to defuse tensions with North Korea after the elections, he said.

The Realmeter surveys were of 5,000 South Koreans nationwide aged 19 or older and carried out from May 10-14 and May 24-28. They had a margin of error plus or minus 1.4 percentage points.

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