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South Korea ruling party strong at polls despite ferry disaster

Reuters | Last Updated: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 06:32

Seoul: South Korean President Park Geun-hye`s conservative party posted a strong showing in mayoral and provincial elections on Wednesday despite sharp criticism for the government`s handling of a ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people in April.

The sinking of the Sewol has sidelined traditional regional campaign issues such as jobs, education and welfare and focused attention on the perceived failure by Asia`s fourth-largest economy on such basics as enforcing safety standards.

But the solid results for Park`s Saenuri Party indicated voters were willing to let her right-of-center government move on from the country`s deadliest maritime disaster in 20 years and seek a fresh chance to reform bureaucracy and boost the economy.
"I`m giving them my support once again, and given what has happened, it`ll firm things up and continue on with development," said Hwang Ok-hee after casting her ballot in Seoul. "We need to believe in them."

Park`s Saenuri Party candidates won eight of the 17 offices for major city mayors and provincial governors, including key battleground races in the city of Incheon and in Gyeonggi province near the capital, the National Election Commission said.

Liberal Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon retained his post -- seen by some as a springboard to the presidency -- by more than 10 percentage points over his conservative rival.

Voters also elected other mayors, county officials and local council members throughout the country.

Park`s approval ratings fell sharply from 61 percent to 46 percent in the days after the April 16 ferry disaster - her lowest approval level since coming to power in February 2013 - and show little sign of improving.

But polls by Gallup Korea in late May suggested more than 40 percent of voters still support the Saenuri Party. Only 28 percent said they supported the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).
The opposition was careful not to campaign too aggressively on the government`s handling of the disaster because distrust of politicians has increased across the board. The elections are the first nationwide polls since Park took office.

The Saenuri Party staked its campaign on Park`s pledge to reform government bureaucracy and improve safety oversight, arguing that the ferry disaster presented an opportunity for change.

"Korea after the Sewol disaster must be different from Korea before the disaster," senior Saenuri official Lee Wan-koo said. "We need to reform this country ... and create a safe country."

The Sewol ferry sank on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju on April 16. Of the more than 300 people killed, most were students from Danwon High School on the outskirts of Seoul.

The ferry was heavily overloaded, was travelling too fast on a turn and many of its crew abandoned ship while the children waited in their cabins as they had been instructed.

First Published: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 06:32

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