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S Korea ruling party survives polls relatively unscathed

There were neither big winners nor losers in South Korea's local elections, which saw the largest voter turnout in 16 years.

SEOUL: There were neither big winners nor losers in South Korea's local elections, which saw the largest voter turnout in 16 years.

Many had expected a landslide victory for the opposition party, as the Koreans had become highly critical of President Park Geun-hye and her administration for the incompetent handling of the April ferry disaster.

But South Korea's ruling party survived the local elections relatively unscathed.

With counting still continuing from Wednesday's nationwide polls, Park's Saenuri Party was set to win eight of the 17 main contests for city mayors and provincial governors.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) had won or was leading in nine races.

But there were no election celebrations at the NPAD camp.

Instead, the head of the party said it was time for both parties to work together.

NPAD's head, Kim Han-gil, said: "We will accept this with a heavy heart. We see this result as a stern order telling both the ruling and opposition parties to build a new Republic of Korea."

Certainly, a sharp shift in tone from the one heard on the eve of the election.

Mr Kim had said if people didn't act, the ship called the Republic of Korea would sink just as the Sewol had.

Wednesday's local elections were billed as a referendum on President Park, her first major election since taking office in February last year.

Her approval ratings had dropped drastically following the ferry tragedy.

The 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry was carrying 476 people -- mostly high school students on a school trip -- when it sank off the southwest coast on April 16.

Since then, 289 bodies have been recovered, leaving 15 unaccounted for.

Many South Koreans had thought the botched handling of the disaster would result in a thrashing of Park's party at the local elections.

In the end, there were no major upsets nor rousing winners.

But still, a huge sigh of relief from the ruling party amid fears of a voter backlash.

Saenuri Party's secretary general Yoon Sang-hyun said: "The election was held at a time when the grief from the Sewol disaster has yet to die down. But our determination and sincerity to build a new Republic of Korea came through."

The ruling party might have fared better than expected, but it failed to win the election's most high-profile race for Seoul City mayor.

Having thumped Hyundai scion Chung Mong-joon, seven-time lawmaker and a former president of FIFA, Mayor Park Won-soon, returns for a second term.

All was not lost, however.

The ruling party did steal the seat from the opposition in Incheon city - where the Asian Games will be held later this year.

In a way, President Park has passed the test this time.

Now, it falls on her to fulfil her earlier promises to implement much-needed changes and reforms within her government. 

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