SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's conservative ruling party appears to have lost its parliamentary majority in Wednesday's (April 13) general election, early election results and exit polls showed.
With vote-counting under way, the Saenuri Party of President Park Geun Hye was tipped to win 132 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, Yonhap news agency said.
The left-leaning main opposition Minjoo Party was tipped to win a total of 105 seats and the splinter opposition People's Party was predicted to bag 36 seats.
Earlier exit polls by major TV stations also showed Saenuri giving up its majority but remaining the largest single party.
Turnout was 58 per cent, up 3.8 percentage points from the 2012 election.
The election was clouded by North Korean nuclear threats and the multiple challenges facing Asia's fourth-largest economy, as President Park enters the final stretch of her term in office.
Political power in South Korea is firmly concentrated in the presidency, with incumbents limited to a single five-year term. Elections to the single-chamber national assembly are traditionally dominated by local issues.
If the ruling party, which won 152 parliamentary seats four years ago, fails to hold a majority it would be forced to rely on independent lawmakers to retain power in parliament.
Final official results were expected Thursday morning.
Rising unemployment, plunging exports and worryingly high levels of household debt have led to criticisms of Park's handling of the economy - and, by extension, of Saenuri.
Dissatisfaction is especially high among young people, with the jobless rate among those aged 15-29 at record levels.
The left-wing opposition sought to frame Wednesday's vote as a referendum on Park's economic policies. But it has suffered from factional infighting and breakaways that threaten to split the liberal vote.
Kate Kim, an unemployed 25-year-old college graduate, said crippling levels of joblessness had persuaded her and many of her previously apathetic friends to vote.
"This is the first time I have voted... our country desperately needs change, especially for young and jobless people like me," Kim said.
Analysts had earlier predicted a majority for Saenuri, saying its prospects would be boosted by surging military tensions on the divided peninsula.
The North conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
Tensions are also high over an ongoing major US-South Korean military exercise, which the North sees as a rehearsal for invasion.
Seoul businessman Chung Hae-Young said he voted for Saenuri because of its hardline stance towards Pyongyang.
"I like how the party handled the North, although it honestly hasn't done a good job with the economy," said the 60-year-old.
But the conservatives have also suffered from internal bickering, particularly over the process for nominating candidates, which led to a number of defections by MPs now running as independents.
"During the nomination process, we failed and disappointed the people. It is entirely our fault," Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-Sung acknowledged last week.
The outcome of Wednesday's vote could have a significant impact on Park, who has less than two years left of her term.
A dwindling of conservative support would leave her very much a lame duck.
Park has fallen short on most of her key economic promises, a failure she puts down to legislative inaction.
But critics accuse her of skewed priorities, poor decision-making and an authoritarian style of leadership.
Under her presidency, annual economic growth has averaged around 2.9 per cent compared to 3.2 percent under her predecessor Lee Myung-Bak.
Exports, which account for more than half of GDP, have fallen for the past 14 months consecutively, while household debt has soared to a record US$1.0 trillion (S$1.35 trillion).