Park’s Opposition Holds Seoul in Korea Vote After Ferry Sinking

South Korea’s biggest opposition party probably won Seoul’s mayoral election with other key races still too close to call in the first national vote faced by President Park Geun Hye’s government since an outpouring of public anger over the Sewol ferry sinking, an exit poll showed.

Park Won Soon from the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy is expected to beat ruling Saenuri party candidate Chung Mong Joon today by about 10 percentage points, broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS said in a joint exit poll on their networks. Park has been Seoul mayor since November 2011.

About 23 million people, or 56.8 percent of eligible voters, went to polls to elect 4,000 local and regional officials, in a contest that pitted Park’s Saenuri party against an opposition that sought to tap public outrage over the ferry sinking. More than 300 people, most of them high school students on an excursion, died or went missing after the Sewol ferry capsized on April 16, sparking a national backlash against the government’s handling of the tragedy.

“The Sewol has been on my mind ever since,” Kim Doe Woan, a housekeeper with a 10-year-old son, said after voting in Seoul. “We need officials who can carefully investigate and prevent disasters like that.” She wouldn’t say which party she backs.

Mayoral races in South Korea’s second- and third-largest cities, Busan and Incheon, were too close to call, said the exit poll released after the voting ended at 6 p.m. The race for governor of South Korea’s most populous Gyeonggi province was also neck-and-neck, it said. Results should be available some time around midnight in Seoul.

Support Dips

President Park’s support dropped to the lowest in more than a year after what she called a “failed” rescue operation when the Sewol sank off the southwestern coast. A month later, Park made a tearful apology to the nation and promised a public safety overhaul.

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.

Many of the 9,000 candidates addressed safety concerns in their campaigns. 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.

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