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Park Withstands Public Anger Over Ferry Sinking in S. Korea Vote

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South Korean President Park Geun Hye
Park Geun Hye, South Korea's president. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

June 5 (Bloomberg) -- South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s Saenuri party withstood public anger over her government’s handling of a deadly ferry sinking to hold its ground in local elections, a result it welcomed as a “final chance” from voters.

Of the 17 most populous constituencies, Park’s Saenuri party carried eight, one less than it held before yesterday’s vote. The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy won nine, up from seven. Saenuri won the gubernatorial race in the country’s most populous Gyeonggi province and the mayoral vote in the second- and third-largest cities of Busan and Incheon. Seoul’s NPAD mayor won re-election.

The local elections yesterday tested support for Park and the ruling party against an opposition that sought to tap outrage against public officials over the April 16 sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, most of them school children. Park on May 19 made a tearful apology to the nation over what she called a failed rescue operation and vowed a government shakeup.

“It’s a draw,” Choi Chang Ryul, a professor of liberal arts at Yong In University near Seoul and a political commentator, said by phone. “The opposition’s strategy of portraying the vote as a verdict was offset by Park’s tears. Her leadership will remain fairly undamaged although she’ll need to listen to opposition more closely now.”

The Sewol sinking triggered an angry backlash against the government and many of the 9,000 candidates played on public concern over safety issues in their campaigns. The Sewol sinking was followed by two deadly fires that fueled the debate over safety in South Korea.

Overhauling State

The election results show voters gave the ruling party a “truly final chance,” Saenuri said in a statement on its website. Park will make a maximum effort “to overhaul the state to make a new Republic of Korea by humbly accepting the people’s wish in each ballot,” her spokesman Min Kyung Wook said at a briefing posted on the website of the presidential office.

Many Saenuri candidates, including Seoul mayor hopeful Chung Mong Joon, appealed for help from Park supporters as the Sewol tragedy threatened their control over Park’s traditional strongholds. They argued their defeat would weaken her power and stall her agenda that includes reducing business regulations and expanding free trade to boost growth in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Nearly 57 percent of 41 million eligible voters took part in the vote, the highest turnout since 1995 when the local voting was first held, the national election commission said. The presidential vote in December 2012 that brought Park to power for a single five-year term saw turnout of 76 percent.

The ferry disaster left people feeling guilty and helpless and there are signs that the fallout is 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.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Kim in Seoul at skim609@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Andrew Davis, Stuart Biggs

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