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Polls let South Koreans deliver verdict on ferry tragedy

Published on Jun 4, 2014 10:30 AM
A woman reads messages on yellow ribbons dedicated to dead and missing passengers of the sunken ferry Sewol at Seoul City Hall Plaza in Seoul on May 19, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Koreans voted on Wednesday in nationwide 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.

Ms Park's administration has been sharply criticised for its response to the tragedy and the polls, which opened at 6:00am local time, were the first real opportunity to measure the severity of the political fallout.

"The disaster changed the campaign picture completely," said Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership. "Other issues have largely been swept aside and the real question has become about defending Park or holding her to account," Choi said. The high popularity ratings Ms 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, Ms 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, have taken on the trappings of a referendum.

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