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(LEAD) Parties drum up support on eve of by-elections

2014/07/29 19:10

(ATTN: ADDS more information in paras 13-14)

SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- Rival political parties made a final appeal for votes Tuesday, the eve of parliamentary by-elections, as both sides predicted a fierce battle in many of the constituencies up for grabs.

A total of 15 parliamentary seats will be contested in Wednesday's by-elections, the largest-ever in the country, leading to expectations the vote will serve as a mid-term referendum on President Park Geun-hye's conservative administration.

The polls also come less than two months after the June 4 local mayoral and gubernatorial elections in which neither the ruling Saenuri Party nor the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) claimed a clear-cut victory.

One of the most watched districts has been Suwon, just south of Seoul, where three of the 15 seats are being contested in separate constituencies.

The region has drawn more attention after two candidates of the minor opposition Justice Party withdrew from their respective races in Suwon last week to support their NPAD rivals in a move seen as boosting the opposition bloc's chances of victory.

On Tuesday, leaders of both the ruling and main opposition parties headed to Suwon in an apparent show of support for their respective candidates.

Leaders of the ruling Saenuri Party hold a meeting at the campaign office of Kim Yong-nam, the party's candidate for Suwon's District C, in Suwon, south of Seoul, on July 29, 2014. (Yonhap)

Leaders of the ruling Saenuri Party hold a meeting at the campaign office of Kim Yong-nam, the party's candidate for Suwon's District C, in Suwon, south of Seoul, on July 29, 2014. (Yonhap)

"If the Saenuri Party secures a stable majority of parliamentary seats through the upcoming elections, we will be able to act as a lever for the Park Geun-hye government's successful running of state affairs," Kim Moo-sung, the chief of the ruling party, said during a party meeting at the campaign office of Kim Yong-nam, the party's candidate for District C.

In District D, NPAD co-leaders Kim Han-gil and Ahn Cheol-soo also held a party meeting.

"These elections demand accountability for the government's incompetence and lack of responsibility revealed through the Sewol disaster, the (Cabinet reshuffle) disaster, and the investigation into Yoo Byung-eun," Ahn said.

The by-elections come as the nation is still reeling from April's sinking of the ferry Sewol, which claimed the lives of more than 300 people, mostly high school students.

Public mistrust in the government has been widespread following revelations that officials botched their initial rescue response to the disaster, leading many to question the validity of last week's official announcement that the ferry's owner, Yoo Byung-eun, was found dead in a plum field last month.

Yoo had been the target of a massive manhunt amid allegations he took part in corrupt dealings to remodel and overload the ship to maximize profits at the expense of passengers' safety.

Adding fuel to the controversy, NPAD spokesman Park Beom-kye said earlier in the day that a police officer present at the autopsy believed the body examined did not belong to Yoo based on height measurements and other vital data such as dental records.

This statement was rebutted by the police and drew criticism from the Saenuri Party, which said the spokesman's remarks are irresponsible and contradict irrefutable scientific facts.

The ruling party has called on voters to help it reclaim an absolute majority in the 300-member National Assembly so that it can realize President Park's pledge to reform the nation and revive the economy. The party currently holds 147 out of the 285 seats in parliament.

The opposition party, meanwhile, has called on voters to pass judgment on the Park administration for failing to properly respond to the disaster.

Uncertainties abound over the election results, with both the ruling and main opposition parties claiming to have clear leads in only three constituencies each.

The remaining nine races are expected to be neck-and-neck, according to the parties' internal surveys.

Both parties suspect that last week's mergers between opposition candidates in Suwon and Seoul, as well as the public's judgment of the ferry tragedy have already been factored in.

The merger in Seoul came as Gi Dong-min of the NPAD withdrew from the Dongjak-B constituency to support Roh Hoe-chan of the Justice Party to challenge the ruling party's Na Kyung-won, who was seen as having a clear lead over the two.

The largest single variable that remains in determining the election results is voter turnout, according to both parties, with a high turnout traditionally favoring the opposition camp.

Leaders of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy and the minor opposition Justice Party campaign for the Justice Party's Roh Hoe-chan (C) in Seoul's Dongjak-B constituency on July 29, 2014. (Yonhap)

Leaders of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy and the minor opposition Justice Party campaign for the Justice Party's Roh Hoe-chan (C) in Seoul's Dongjak-B constituency on July 29, 2014. (Yonhap)

Voter turnout during the two-day early voting period that ended Saturday hit a record 7.98 percent, the highest for parliamentary by-elections but lower than 11.49 percent recorded for the June 4 local mayoral and gubernatorial elections, according to the National Election Commission.

hague@yna.co.kr

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