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S Korea ferry tragedy set to cast pall on ruling party in polls

South Korea is set to hold local elections on Wednesday. It will be closely-watched as the polls are usually regarded as a referendum on the government's performance. The recent ferry disaster that left nearly 300 dead or missing has changed the political climate.

SEOUL: South Korea is set to hold local elections on Wednesday. It will be closely-watched as the polls are usually regarded as a referendum on the government's performance.

The positions being contested are 17 provincial governor and metropolitan mayoral posts, as well as over 780 city council seats.

If the polls were held two months ago, the ruling Saenuri Party would have been a shoo-in.

But the recent ferry disaster that left nearly 300 dead or missing has changed the political climate.

Public anger over her government's mishandling of the country's deadliest ferry disaster has pushed President Park Geun-hye's approval ratings down to one of its lowest levels since she took office.

That disapproval is widely expected to be reflected on Wednesday.

Polls on that day are the first nationwide elections since Park took office about 16 months ago.

Before the Sewol ferry sank on April 16, her ruling Saenuri Party was expected to win, as many undecided voters were moving towards the conservative party, on hopes it would improve the sluggish economy.

But the ferry disaster has left many South Koreans furious at the government, giving weight to the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).

Park Young-sun, floor leader for NPAD, said: “This election should focus on ways to make a safe Republic of Korea. The election has to be a warning to the government that failed to protect its children.”

But some experts said the ferry disaster could help both parties.

Shin Yul, professor of political science at Myongji University, said: “For the opposition, this is a golden opportunity to argue about government incompetence. In that sense, the opposition could take advantage of this opportunity.

“From the ruling party's position, there is so much public anger in all sectors including the government, politics and even the press. And that could make them turn away from politics. If that happens, voter turnout will be very low.”

If the turnout is low on Wednesday, it would likely mean that the young are not turning up to vote, as older Koreans usually head to the polls rain or shine.

With older Koreans traditionally preferring conservative parties, the Saenuri party will likely benefit from this trend.

While the vote could go either way, some polls are putting the NPAD ahead of Saenuri in six of the seven cities and provinces being contested.

Unlike past elections, campaigning this time is calm and quiet, as the country is still reeling from the aftermath of the ferry sinking.

The Sewol tragedy has cast a shadow over the election, and even as many see this as a test for Park’s government, some also think the poll could be a catalyst for national soul-searching and a fresh start for Koreans still mourning the deaths in the ferry disaster.  

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