June 4 (Bloomberg) -- South Korean voters headed to the polls today in the first electoral test for President Park Geun Hye’s administration amid grief over the nation’s deadliest ferry disaster in more than four decades.
Almost 4,000 mayors and local representatives will be chosen in voting that ends at 6 p.m. The poll pits Park’s Saenuri party against an opposition that’s seeking to tap anger -- particularly among mothers -- against public officials in wake of the Sewol tragedy that left 250 school children dead.
“The election hinges on the turnout, in other words, how many swing voters roust themselves out to vote,” said Yoon Hee Woong, a public opinion analyst at Seoul’s political Min Consulting firm. “They have the power to rule if the Sewol sinking really was a major political crisis for Park.”
The turnout today was 23.3 percent as of noon, about 4 percent lower than in the same vote four years ago, the National Election Commission said on its website. About 11 percent of the 41 million eligible voters had already taken part in early voting last week, according to the commission.
Any popular groundswell against the ruling party risks making it tougher for Park to proceed with an agenda that, before the April 16 ferry catastrophe, had focused on eliminating regulations and expanding free trade to lift the potential growth of Asia’s fourth-largest economy to 4 percent. Limited national polling offers few clues for today’s results.
Park’s support dropped to the lowest in more than a year after what she called a “failed” rescue operation when the Sewol capsized off South Korea’s southwestern coast on April 16. A month later, Park, 62, made a tearful apology to the nation and promised a public safety overhaul. She nominated a new prime minister to lead a cabinet shakeup and build a new team to serve the remainder of her single five-year term.
Mothers may emerge as a key voting bloc as the ferry sinking stirred sympathy toward the families of the victims, Yoon said. A lack of organization may prevent Korean mothers from emerging with the kind of political clout built by “soccer moms” in the U.S., said Lee Ho Chul, a political science professor at Incheon National University.
Support for Park among women dropped to 48 percent in a Gallup Korea poll released less than a week before the vote. It was 62 percent just before the Sewol sank. Saenuri polled at 42 percent, with the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the main opposition party, at 28 percent with 25 percent of respondents saying they didn’t support any party. Park and Saenuri won the 2012 presidential election with almost 52 percent of the vote.
Concern about public safety remained high even as the Sewol rescue operation wound down. On May 28 a fire in a nursing home killed 21 people. That blaze came after a fire in a bus terminal building killed eight, while a roof collapse left 10 dead at a welcoming party for college freshmen this year.
Many of the 9,000 candidates are addressing those safety concerns in their campaigns. The NPAD sees “angry moms” as a key campaign target and would try to portray the vote as a verdict on Park, spokesman Min Byung Doo told reporters on May 15.
Among the key races to watch are the vote in Seoul and in the southeast, Park’s power base. In the capital, Mayor Park Won Soon of the NPAD led Saenuri candidate Chung Mong Joon, chairman of Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. Ltd., by 11 percentage points in a Channel A-Donga Ilbo poll last week.
In the southeastern port city of Busan, a traditional Saenuri stronghold, polls indicated the mayoral race between a ruling party candidate and a pro-opposition independent was neck-and-neck.
The Sewol disaster left people feeling guilty and helpless and there are signs it’s depressing the economy, the LG Economic Research Institute said May 9. Manufacturers’ business confidence for June fell from May partly due to weak domestic consumption, the Bank of Korea said May 30.
“It’s clear the situation is not favorable for the ruling party, but with the turnout expected not to be too high, no side will be able to have a sweeping victory,” Lee said.
The National Election Commission forecast on May 20 that 56 percent of eligible voters would take part, down from 76 percent in the national ballot that brought Park to power.
The potential electoral fallout from the Sewol may not be limited to Park as polls indicate a broad dissatisfaction with officials from across the spectrum.
“Voters not taking part sends a message,” said Yoon from Min Consulting. “Whether people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are stirred enough to express themselves by taking part is the key.”
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