| SEOUL, June 2
SEOUL, June 2 South Koreans elect new local
representatives on Wednesday in elections widely seen as a
barometer of President Park Geun-hye's response to a ferry
disaster in April that killed more than 300 people, most of them
children from the same school.
The sinking of the Sewol has sidelined traditional campaign
issues such as jobs, education and welfare, and instead focused
voter attention on a fierce national debate over the
government's failure to enforce oversight on safety.
"This election is going to start with the Sewol and end with
the Sewol," said Kim Hyung-joon, a political science professor
at Myongji University in Seoul.
"It'll be favourable to the opposition and considerably
disadvantageous to the ruling party."
Park's approval ratings fell sharply from 61 to 46 percent
in the days after the disaster - her lowest since coming to
power in February last year - and show little sign of improving.
Opposition candidates look set to win key mayoral races in
Seoul, neighbouring Incheon and Busan in the southeast, but
Park's ruling conservative Saenuri Party is unlikely to suffer
Polls by Gallup Korea in late May suggested more than 40
percent of voters still supported the Saenuri Party, while only
28 percent said they supported the main opposition party.
About 40 percent of voters in South Korea are over 50 and
traditionally vote conservative - unlike younger voters who are
less likely to vote at all.
The opposition has also been careful not to use the
government handling of the disaster as a political tool when
distrust of politicians across the board has increased.
The elections are the first nationwide poll since Park took
office. Opposition liberal Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon has a 10
percent lead over the conservative candidate, and is expected to
hold on to his position, seen by some as a springboard to the
Policy towards North Korea, which has threatened a fourth
nuclear test in violation of U.N. sanctions, has not emerged as
a campaign issue.
PRESIDENT IN TEARS
The Sewol ferry sank on a routine trip south from the port
of Incheon to the traditional holiday island of Jeju on April
16. More than 300 people, most of them students from the Danwon
High School on the outskirts of Seoul, died.
The ferry was heavily overloaded, was travelling too fast on
a turn and many of its crew abandoned ship as the children
waited in their cabins as told. They paid for their obedience
with their lives.
Park, tears rolling down her cheeks, formally apologised
last month for the disaster but she has been hit hard by an
angry nationwide outcry over the government's response and the
slow and ineffective rescue.
She has vowed to overhaul government structures and improve
safety oversight to guard against any recurrence of preventable
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned over the government
response to the sinking, in which it was first announced that
everyone had been rescued.
Chung was booed and someone threw a water bottle at him when
he visited grieving parents the day after the disaster. Park was
also booed by some relatives when she visited a gym where
families of the missing were staying.
In further bad news for Park, her appointed successor for
prime minister was forced to withdraw his nomination following
allegations he abused his position as a former Supreme Court
Judge to benefit his private law practice.
When campaigning, many election candidates now wear small
yellow ribbons on their clothes. Initially a symbol of hope for
the missing passengers and crew, the ribbon has evolved into a
symbol of mourning.
"We want politicians to put party interest and politics
aside and meet and talk with the families of the ferry victims,"
said Kim Young-hoon, a lawyer representing the families of the
"There's no ruling or opposition in this," he said. "We are
not trying to shake the country but improve it. Please work
(Additional reporting by Sohee Kim; Editing by Jack Kim and