Voting begins in crucial local elections

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Voting begins in crucial local elections

South Koreans began casting ballots Wednesday in local elections seen by many as a mid-term referendum on the Lee Myung-bak administration grappling with an increasingly belligerent North Korea and a stagnant economy.

A total of 3,991 officials, including 16 metropolitan mayors and provincial governors, and 228 heads of lower-level administrative units, will be chosen in the first nationwide election in two years, according to the National Election Commission (NEC).

Voting started at 6:00 a.m. at over 13,388 polling stations across the country and was to last 12 hours, with the election watchdog agency predicting a slight fall in voter turnout from 51.6 percent recorded four years ago.

The nation's three major television networks -- KBS, MBC and SBS -- plan to announce the results of their exit polls right after the voting is closed at 6 p.m. Official results are expected early Thursday morning at the earliest.

The election watchdog said the number of voters eligible to cast ballots is 38.85 million, or 77.7 percent of the nation's population of 49.97
million.

The elections come amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula in the aftermath of March's sinking of a South Korean warship by North Korea.

Recent polls conducted by media companies, including the TV broadcasters, have forecast that the ruling Grand National Party is expected to sweep at least seven of the 16 metropolitan mayor and gubernatorial positions, while the main opposition Democratic Party is expected to secure at least three.

Voter turnout was 46.1 percent in the 2008 general elections and 51.6 percent in the 2006 local elections. [Yonhap]
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