S Koreans vote amid tensions
Seoul - The deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea overshadowed crucial local elections Wednesday that were seen as a gauge of public sentiment toward the pro-American president's handling of the security crisis.
Outrage over the sinking, which killed 46 sailors, bolstered support for President Lee Myung-bak's ruling conservative Grand National Party ahead of the vote that will fill 3 991 positions - including key mayoral jobs that often serve as springboards for future national leaders, polls and analysts said.
Voters started casting ballots at 13 388 polling stations for the races that include about 9 900 candidates nationwide.
Before the ship sank two months ago, President Lee was struggling with growing controversy over massive infrastructure projects. Fierce infighting threatened to split his party in two.
But the March 26 downing of the warship has dominated headlines for weeks and has overshadowed other hot-button issues. Security jitters about North Korea deepened after a multinational investigation concluded that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine tore apart and sank the 1 200-ton Cheonan warship.
The United States and South Korea have decided to hold a massive anti-submarine exercise in the Yellow Sea early next week as part of their punitive measures on the North, the Yonhap news agency said Wednesday, citing an unidentified South Korean military official. Calls to the military and the US command in Seoul were not immediately answered Wednesday, a national holiday.
"The Cheonan helped the GNP. Its sinking mustered conservative votes," said Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea. "In fact, the GNP hadn't been in a good shape."
Analyst Park Kie-duk agreed. "Above all, we still have the bitter memories of the Korean War," said Park, of the private Sejong Institute near Seoul.
Voter Eom Soo-heum, 58, construction worker, said he supported the ruling party because he approved of the way the president has handled the ship crisis.
"I assumed that if these candidates shared the same political values with President Lee, they would do a good job," Eom said.
But the main opposition Democratic Party has accused the government of exploiting the sinking for the elections, arguing that Lee should have announced the investigation results after the polls.
Voter Im Mi-ja, 61, supermarket owner, said her ballots went to the opposition. "I think the Lee government initiated the Cheonan incident by not being diplomatic enough with North Korea before the ship incident happened," she said.
North Korea, which has repeatedly denied attacking the ship, has accused the South Korean leader of staging the sinking for election purposes. Pyongyang's state-run Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday urged voters to oppose ruling party candidates and "deal sledgehammer blows" to the president.
Lee's party was forecast to win about half of the 16 races for mayoral and gubernatorial positions, recent opinion polls have said.
Opposition parties were focusing on mayoral races for Seoul and nearby Incheon along with the governor post for Gyeonggi Province that surrounds Seoul.
A survey released by the mass-circulation Dong-a Ilbo last Friday said the ruling party would win nine of the 16 races. The telephone survey of 8,600 adults conducted by the Seoul-based Korea Research Center has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points for Seoul and Gyeonggi. The margin of error for the other 14 races was 4.4 percentage points.
In the Seoul race, the ruling party incumbent, Oh Se-hoon, a potential presidential aspirant, was pitted against the Democratic Party's Han Myung-sook, the nation's first female prime minister under the government of former President Roh Moo-hyun.