Ferry disaster overshadows S. Korean elections

SEOUL- South Korea’s opposition parties are expected to reap an election bonanza from seething public anger over the government’s mishandling of the ferry disaster as campaigning for next month’s local polls opened Thursday.

The June 4 polls are the first nationwide elections since President Park Geun-Hye took office 16 months earlier and are widely seen as a referendum on her performance.

Prior to the April 16 ferry disaster which left more than 300 dead and missing, the elections were seen as a walkover for her ruling Saenuri Party as many middle-of-road voters threw their weight behind the conservative party on hopes it would improve the sluggish economy.

But the disaster has swung the spectrum of opinion to the left and is likely to bring a ballot bonanza to the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), especially in pivotal Seoul and nearby Incheon.

Winning these cities is crucial for election victory.

Opinion polls by the three main television networks conducted from Saturday through to Monday put the opposition comfortably ahead of the ruling party in Seoul, slightly in the lead in Incheon and neck-and-neck in Gyeonggi province.

“The government’s incompetence in handling the ferry disaster was exposed to public scrutiny for more than a month through TV and other media coverage as it failed to rescue a single life from the sunken ferry”, Jeong Han-Wool, executive director of the Center for Public Opinion Research at the East Asia Institute, told AFP.

“This has made the Park government vulnerable to attacks from the opposition so that the voters should deliver a stern judgement on it through the ballot boxes”.

The 6,825-tonne ferry carrying an estimated 476 people sank off the country’s southwest coast.

As of Thursday morning, a total of 288 passengers have been confirmed dead, most of them students on an organized trip, with 16 others still missing.