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(3rd LD) Voters go to polls in largest-ever by-election

2014/07/30 15:10

SEOUL, July 30 (Yonhap) -- South Koreans began voting Wednesday in the country's largest-ever parliamentary by-elections seen as a midterm referendum on President Park Geun-hye's conservative administration.

The polls carry extra weight because 15 parliamentary seats are up for grabs, the most ever for a by-election. They also come less than two months after the June 4 local elections in which neither the ruling nor the main opposition party claimed a clear-cut victory.

Voting, which started at 6 a.m. and was to run until 8 p.m., was proceeding without a hitch at 1,003 polling stations in 15 constituencies nationwide, including Seoul's Dongjak-B district and three electoral districts in Suwon, just south of the capital, according to the National Election Commission (NEC).

As of 2 p.m., voter turnout came to 23.5 percent, with some 677,000 people casting their ballots, the NEC said.

The election watchdog forecast that the final voter turnout may reach the mid 30 percent range.

Voters cast their ballots in South Korea's largest-ever parliamentary by-elections on July 30, 2014. A record 15 parliamentary seats are up for grabs.(Yonhap)

Voters cast their ballots in South Korea's largest-ever parliamentary by-elections on July 30, 2014. A record 15 parliamentary seats are up for grabs.(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, it added.

The by-elections come as the nation is still reeling from April's ferry sinking that 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 in 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 business profits at the expense of passengers' safety.

The ruling Saenuri 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 main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), meanwhile, has called on voters to pass judgment on the Park administration for failing to properly respond to the disaster.

On the eve of last week's early voting, three opposition candidates withdrew their candidacies in a move to boost the chances of the opposition bloc's victory.

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

Cheon Ho-sun, the chief of the Justice Party, also quit one of the races in Suwon to back Park Kwang-on of NPAD, while the Justice Party's Lee Jeong-mi withdrew from another district in Suwon, leaving NPAD's Sohn Hak-kyu as the main opposition candidate in that race.

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

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

hague@yna.co.kr

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