SEOUL, South Korea – South Koreans began voting Wednesday in local elections seen as a test of how the public feels about President Park Geun-hye's handling of April's deadly ferry sinking.
Park's approval ratings have plummeted since the April 16 disaster that left more than 300 people dead or missing and led to an outpouring of rage and shame. Park has apologized several times amid growing public criticism over how her government conducted search and rescue operations and monitored safety issues before the sinking. It remains to be seen whether the disaster will hurt Park's ruling conservative Saenuri Party in the vote. Pre-election surveys suggested her party may fare well or, at the least, avoid a big defeat.
About 3,950 regional posts are up for grabs in the elections, which are held every four years, including 17 important mayoral and provincial governor jobs that often serve as springboards for future national leaders. The polls' results, expected late Wednesday night, won't lead to a structural change in the central government or the National Assembly legislature, but they could still be important for Park, who is facing her biggest political crisis since she took office early last year.
Candidates affiliated with Park's party have had comfortable leads in six of the 17 races, compared with five races that are led by opposition and independent candidates, according to various opinion surveys taken ahead of the polls. The other six are too close to call, the surveys showed. Eight of the current 17 mayoral and provincial governor posts belong to Saenuri Party members.
The surveys indicated that strong public criticism of Park, mostly led by liberal, younger South Koreans, has likely pushed voters who typically make up Park's base — older, conservative people — to respond by rallying behind ruling party candidates in a country deeply split between left and right, said Prof. Kim Sung-Joo at Sungkyunkwan University. Because regional rivalry still runs deep in South Korean society, Park's party is expected to win most of the elections in its home turf, southeastern Gyeongsang province, while the liberal opposition party will likely sweep most of the polls in its traditional stronghold, southwestern Jeolla province, according to media projections.
Prof. Jang Seung-Jin at Seoul's Kookmin University said mayoral and gubernatorial elections are not generally affected by a single national issue, something that can happen in presidential and National Assembly elections. But Jang said the Saenuri Party may have been leading in more election surveys if the ferry disaster hadn't occurred.
To restore public confidence, Park has replaced her prime minster and two other top officials and vowed to restructure government offices. Critics say Park's actions were taken too early because the cause of the sinking is still being investigated. Authorities say overloaded cargo on the ship, crew members' abandonment of passengers in need and the coast guard's slow, unprofessional rescue operations are the likely reasons for the disaster.
Seven weeks after the sinking, 288 bodies have been recovered and 16 are still missing. Two divers have died during searches. The disaster has caused an outburst of national grief, with family members of missing people still camping out at a port.