Ferry tragedy turns local S Korea polls into referendum

Ferry tragedy turns local S Korea polls into referendum
South Korean president Park Geun-hye (L) walks with family members of victims onboard sunken passenger ship Sewol after their face-to-face talk at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, in this May 16, 2014 photo

SEOUL- South Koreans voted Wednesday in local elections seen as a spot referendum on President Park Geun-Hye's handling of the April ferry disaster that killed about 300 people, mostly schoolchildren.

Park's administration has been sharply criticised for its response to the tragedy and the polls were the first real opportunity to measure the severity of the political fallout on a national level.

The high popularity ratings Park has enjoyed since taking in office in February 2013 have been hammered by the disaster, which has become the defining moment of her presidency so far.

The investigation into the sinking of the 6,825-tonne Sewol on April 16 exposed a culture of institutional negligence, greed and incompetence that contributed to the scale of the tragedy.

Although these problems have roots stretching back decades, Park and her ruling conservative Saenuri Party have become a default focus for much of the public grief and anti-establishment anger.

As a result, Wednesday's elections for 17 new provincial governors and municipal mayors, as well as numerous local councils, are being seen as a snap vote of confidence in Park's leadership.

"Other issues have largely been swept aside and the real question has become about defending Park or holding her to account," said Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership.

Among voters in Seoul, that choice was clearly uppermost in many people's minds. 

"I really believe the ruling party should be punished for what they did, or rather didn't do, over the Sewol," said June Kim, a 35-year-old office worker.

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