Politicians make way down campaign trail

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Politicians make way down campaign trail

Political hopefuls went into high gear yesterday as the official 13-day campaign period kicked off for the June 4 local elections, which are largely seen as a midterm test for the Park Geun-hye administration.

The results of the polls could also greatly determine the opposition’s force during the remainder of her five-year term.

The ruling Saenuri Party’s election team, headed by senior party members including former floor leader Choi Kyung-hwan and newly-elected floor leader Lee Wan-koo, chose Daejeon as its first stop on the campaign trail.

“Chungcheong is not only the center of Korea geographically, but also the center of fidelity, where our ancestors consistently and successfully defended our nation. That’s why we are launching our official campaign team here,” Suh Chung-won, one of the team chairmen, said at the ruling party’s campaign office there.

Meanwhile, the co-chairmen of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) headed to Suwon, in Gyeonggi, in a show of support for Kim Jin-pyo, the province’s gubernatorial contender.

In a sign that the major opposition was shifting its strategy to wage a full-on attack on the Saenuri Party over last month’s Sewol ferry disaster, NPAD co-chairman Kim Han-gill issued a stinging criticism of the government for its botched rescue efforts and asked that voters take their anger to the polls.

The direct attack on the ruling party over the crisis was part of calculated efforts by the opposition to appeal to undecided voters and mobilize support from that demographic, particularly with the public still reeling over the accident, which left more than 300 passengers dead or missing.

“The government must not be forgiven for letting young students perish inside the sunken ferry,” the co-chairman said yesterday morning at Kim’s campaign headquarters in Suwon. “Their lives could have been saved, and that is why we need an election [that will punish the current administration].”

The locations that the two parties chose on their first campaign runs were indicative of which races they perceive as vital to their success.

For the NPAD, securing a win in the Gyeonggi gubernatorial race will boost its chances of sweeping major races in Seoul and Gyeonggi. And so far it appears that that possibility could very well become reality, especially with the opposition’s Park Won-soon leading the mayoral race against the Saenuri’s Chung Moon-joon. According to the latest poll, there was a 20 percent gap in approval ratings for the two contenders.

For the ruling party, winning key races in the Chungcheong region, particularly in the North and South Chungcheong gubernatorial elections, will cement its support in the area. Chungcheong typically holds the deciding vote in major elections, namely the presidential race, and is known to politically swing.

Recognizing Chungcheong’s importance, NPAD co-chairman Ahn Cheol-soo also made his way to Daejeon yesterday afternoon to implore support from its constituents.

But it was the Saenuri’s Chung Mong-joon and the NPAD’s Park Won-soon, rivals in Seoul’s closely watched mayoral race, who showed the most resolve, kicking off their campaign efforts right after midnight on Thursday.

The Seoul mayoral election is seen as the most important among the 17 races in the local polls for the political significance it carries. In the latest poll Wednesday conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo and Gallup Korea, Park was miles ahead in the race, with a 53.5 percent approval rating compared with Chung’s 34.4 percent.

In the same survey, the ruling party’s Nam Kyung-pil, who is running in the Gyeonggi gubernatorial election, led with 39.2 percent to his rival Kim Jin-pyo’s 30.7 percent. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Busan’s mayoral race has also drawn a significant amount of public interest. The region is a traditional ruling party stronghold, though with support swinging toward the opposition, there is a chance that the city could elect its first-ever liberal mayor since the introduction of local elections in 1995.

The latest approval poll backs up the ruling party’s deepening concerns over an unprecedented loss in Korea’s second-largest city, the results of a decades-old sluggish economy and voters’ disenchantment with the ruling party.

In the poll of 800 Busan voters conducted on Tuesday, Oh Keo-don, an independent and a unified candidate from the liberal bloc, carried an approval rating of 38 percent ? the same as his Saenuri rival Suh Byung-soo.

One of the main focal points in the elections is whether female voters in their 40s and 50s angry over the authorities’ bungling of the ferry disaster will cast votes for the opposition in defiance of the ruling party. An increasing number of those women, many of whom think of their own children in relation to the disaster, have come to be known as “angry moms.” The term has been used nationwide online and off since the accident to describe that demographic.

Recognizing that it could benefit at the ballots from public anger, NPAD - which kept a low profile in the first few weeks of the disaster - began an offensive against the Park Geun-hye administration, claiming its incompetence led to the failure to save even a single passenger after the first day of the accident.

The ruling party has campaigned in the hope that the decline in President Park’s approval ratings would revive on the back of her nationally-televised address on Monday, in which she showed a rare expression of emotion, shedding tears while naming off the Sewol ferry victims.

Cho Kwang-hwan, head of the political consulting firm Makers 10, said it remains to be seen whether undecided voters were moved by Park’s speech.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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