South Korean voters cast ballots for mayors in Seoul and Busan

People pass by posters showing candidates running in the Seoul mayoral by-election on a street in the South Korean capital on Tuesday.   © AP

KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writer | South Korea

SEOUL — Voters in South Korea’s two biggest cities are casting ballots to elect new mayors on Wednesday, in votes that will set the tone for next year’s presidential election.

In both Seoul and Busan, polls show that candidates of the main conservative opposition People Power Party are likely to win by large margins against rival from the ruling left-leaning Democratic Party.

Wins by the right-leaning candidates would give momentum to opposition forces who have capitalized on President Moon Jae-in’s flagging support rate amid a series of corruption scandals. Moon is not eligible to run in the March 2020 presidential vote as South Korean leaders serve single, five-year terms.

Former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon of the PPP won 58.6% of support in a poll conducted by PNR Research last week, leading former SMEs Minister Park Yong-sun of the DP on 32.5%.

Oh asked people to vote for him to punish the administration of President Moon Jae-in. “We should punish this government of hypocrisy and incapability. I will make things right by winning this election,” Oh said in a campaign speech on Tuesday.

Moon’s approval rating hit a fresh low of 32% last week in a poll by Gallup Korea, as the public turn against the president’s housing policy. Home prices have soared in Seoul and other big cities over the past year, and economists say that it is largely due to new laws aimed at regulating the housing market.

Park said that she is the right person to lead Seoul as Oh may cause trouble with the capital’s council that is dominated by the DP members.

In Busan, the PPP’s Park Hyung-joon earned 46.8% of support in a poll by three pollsters last week, dwarfing the DP’s Kim Young-choon on 26.7%. Park was a senior secretary to former president Lee Myung-bak, while Kim served as oceans minister under Moon.

The voting will close at 8 p.m. local time, followed by exit polls from three major broadcasters. Experts say that the final results may come as early as the midnight.

The winners are in the strange position of only serving a one-year term because the elections are being held after both positions were left vacant before the end of the previous four-year term.

Former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon died by suicide last year after his female secretary filed a sexual violence complaint against him; and former Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don resigned last year after a female official in the city claimed that he groped her.

More than 20% of voters voted early over the weekend in Seoul, while 18.7% participated in Busan.

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