Ruling party, rival seem to split S. Korean vote

South Korean National Election Commission officials sort out ballots in the country's local elections as they begin the counting process in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. South Koreans voted Wednesday in local elections seen as a test of how the public feels about President Park Geun-hye's handling of April's deadly ferry sinking. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
South Korean National Election Commission officials sort out ballots in the country's local elections as they begin the counting process in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. South Koreans voted Wednesday in local elections seen as a test of how the public feels about President Park Geun-hye's handling of April's deadly ferry sinking. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — President Park Geun-hye’s conservative ruling party and its liberal rival appeared set to split key races in local elections Wednesday that are seen as a measure of how the public feels about her government’s handling of April’s deadly ferry disaster.

Early vote counts and an exit poll showed candidates affiliated with Park’s Saenuri Party were leading in early returns for nine of 17 important mayoral and provincial governor races, while opposition candidates were ahead in the other eight. The key local posts often are springboards for future national leaders.

Still, those numbers could change. Late Wednesday, less than 10 percent of votes had been counted in some areas, and candidates were neck and neck in at least four races. The ruling party had comfortable leads in five races and the opposition party led easily in three races, all located in their traditional strongholds. Election commission officials said the final electoral outcome would be available Thursday morning.

The voter turnout was tentatively estimated at about 57 percent, the highest for mayoral and gubernatorial elections since 1998, according to election officials. The turnout was also the second highest since these types of local elections began in 1995.

An exit poll released earlier Wednesday predicted Park’s party and the main opposition party would each win five of the 17 key posts. The poll, jointly conducted by the SBS, KBS and MBC television networks, showed seven too close to call.

About 3,950 regional posts were up for grabs in the elections. The official results, expected late Wednesday, won’t lead to any structural change in the central government or National Assembly, but could still be important for Park, who is facing her biggest political crisis since she took office early last year.

Her approval ratings have plummeted since the April 16 disaster. She has apologized several times amid growing public criticism of how her government conducted search and rescue operations and monitored safety issues before the sinking.

Analysts say strong public criticism of Park following the sinking, mostly led by liberal, younger South Koreans, has likely pushed Park’s base voters — older and conservative — to rally behind ruling party candidates in a country deeply split between left and right.

Regional rivalry runs deep in South Korea, and the exit poll projected easy wins in most of the parties’ traditional strongholds.

Seven weeks after the sinking, 288 bodies have been recovered and 16 are still missing. Two divers have died during the search. The disaster has caused an outburst of national grief, with family members of missing people still camping out at a port.

To restore public confidence, Park has replaced her prime minster and two other top officials and vowed to restructure government offices. Critics say Park’s actions were taken too early because the cause of the sinking is still being investigated. Authorities say overloaded cargo on the ship, crew members’ abandonment of passengers in need and the coast guard’s slow, unprofessional rescue operations are the likely reasons for the disaster.

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