Seoul: South Koreans voted on Wednesday in parliamentary elections that pit the ruling conservatives and their "Queen of Elections" against the mostly liberal Twitter generation of younger voters, and the outcome could hinge on how many turn out to cast ballots.
Voters have by and large ignored an impending rocket launch by North Korea scheduled for this week, and the major issues at stake are rising prices, allegations of sleaze in government and growing discontent over the power of big business, all of which could go against the ruling Saenuri Party.
Opinion polls indicate that the conservatives and the left-wing opposition parties are in a dead heat in the election that serves as a curtain-raiser for the more important presidential vote in December. Those polls ignore under-40 voters, many analysts say, arguing that the liberal opposition could emerge a surprise winner.
However, a low turnout would bode well for conservatives.
By 0000 GMT, turnout was 8.9 percent, compared with 9.1 percent in the previous parliamentary vote, according to the National Election Commission.
Political leaders from the left have appealed for high turnout, which has traditionally boosted their numbers, calling for 60 percent of voters to go to the polls. Just 46.1 percent voted in the 2008 parliamentary election.
A win for the pro-business Saenuri party would be a huge boost for its leader Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea`s former dictator Park Chung-hee. She has been dubbed the "Queen of Elections" for a string of poll wins in 2003.
Pitted against Park is the left-wing coalition that has vowed to rein in the huge conglomerates that dominate South Korea`s economy.
It is pinning its hopes on mobilizing the youth vote that helped deliver it a win in mayoral elections in the capital of Seoul last year.
"The Park Geun-hye effect has been very, very big. She rolled up her sleeves and it has been practically been just her single handed," said independent political commentator Yu Chang-seon, adding Park stands to gain significantly as long as her party avoids a landslide defeat.
The conservatives currently hold 162 out of 299 seats in parliament and control the presidency. This is the first time in two decades that both polls have been held in the same year.
Riding on a tide of public discontent with the political establishment, human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in has surged into the running for the presidency after helping to bring the disparate centre-left into a coalition late last year.
Moon, who is running for a seat in the southern city of Busan, advocates more welfare spending and closer ties with North Korea, which has defied international warnings to move ahead with a planned long-range rocket launch this week.
The rocket launch and the threat of a third nuclear test by North Korea, which remains technically at war with the south, have not been major factors in the elections.
Despite deepening unhappiness with income inequality, the left, led by the Democratic United Party, has most to lose from a poor showing in the parliamentary polls.
"For the Democratic United Party, it appears to be a case of missed opportunity," said Yu.
The opposition is counting on the power of young voters and social media to boost its chances.
"If Moon Jae-in wins a seat and the Democratic United Party claims a significant number of seats, Moon will emerge as a strong presidential contender," said Lee Jun-han of Incheon University.
Another potential presidential contender who could lead a united centre-left, software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo, urged voters to turn out to express their displeasure with the government.
Ahn, who has superstar status among younger voters, likened the opportunity to cast a vote to hit computer game "Angry Birds".