SEOUL - President Park Geun-hye appears to have escaped the worst-case scenario as her Saenuri Party averted a crushing defeat in the local elections Wednesday.
The June 4 local elections were seen as a referendum on her government, which has been sharply criticised for its poor handling of the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16 that left more than 300 dead or missing.
With deepening voter apathy in the wake of the ferry debacle, the elections were expected to deal a serious blow to the president and weaken her leadership in leading reform policies.
The issue of public safety dominated campaigns, while pledges on education, jobs and the economy were put on the back burner. The main opposition party called for judgment on the Park administration while the ruling Saenuri Party begged voters to give the president a second chance.
The ruling party prevailed in mayoral races in Daegu and Ulsan, and gubernatorial races in Jeju Island and its strongholds in South Gyeongsang and North Gyeongsang provinces, according to early results released as of 11:30 p.m. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy was widely expected to achieve victories in mayoral races in Seoul, Sejong and Gwangju, as well as gubernatorial races in its traditional power bases ― the South and North Jeolla provinces.
The rival parties locked in too-close-to-call races in Busan, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, key battlegrounds that were expected to determine victory in the elections. Park Won-soon of the NPAD was expected to be re-elected as mayor of Seoul by defeating Chung Mong-joon, a seven-term lawmaker of the ruling party.
The elections were the first nationwide polls since Park took office in 2013.
They are forecast to serve as a turning point for the Park administration, as she plans to carry out a major Cabinet reshuffle soon, starting with the nomination of a new prime minister and other key posts.
The president vowed to bring drastic changes to her administration by launching new ministries to improve the country's safety standards and work efficiency. The president said she would crack down on suspicious business ties between government officials and businesses, seen as a major cause of the Sewol disaster.
Despite the reform measures and repeated apologies, Park has been struggling to bolster her position in the aftermath of the disaster. Park has found herself at the centre of criticism since the disaster as she has been viewed as insensitive to the grieving victims' families.
Her official apology came more than a month after the tragic accident, while a series of reform measures were announced weeks before her tearful address. The president's failure to embrace the grieving nation became the catalyst for the rapid loss of public confidence in her and her party, observers said.
Earlier, both Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling Saenuri Party had been confident about the local elections as Park had enjoyed a high approval rating. Her approval rating surpassed 60 per cent in early April. But the rating declined rapidly to just below 50 per cent after the accident ― and there were no signs of it improving.