SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Park Geun-hye's conservative ruling party and its liberal rival split key races in local elections that analysts say ended in a tie amid rising public indignation over the government's handling of April's deadly ferry sinking.
With nearly all votes counted Thursday morning, candidates affiliated with Park's Saenuri Party won eight of 17 important mayoral and provincial governor races, while opposition candidates took the other nine. The local posts are often springboards for future national leaders.
"This time, there is no winner and no loser," said Prof. Hong Sung Gul from Seoul's Kookmin University.
In some sense, the ruling party was seen as having fared well as it avoided a big defeat in elections widely seen as a measure of the public's feelings toward Park's government after the April 16 disaster that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
Analysts noted the ruling party could have done much better if the disaster had not happened. "The results weren't really good for a president who had just had a little more than a year in office," said Lee Cheol-hee, head of the private Doomun Political Strategy Institute in Seoul.
But in a sign that could be related to the sinking, Park's party lost Seoul and all four races in the politically neutral central region.
Hong said the main opposition party lost a chance to win more races, saying it drew a backlash for using the sinking to attack the government without proposing any clear reform plans.
About 3,950 regional posts were up for grabs in the elections. The results were never going to lead to any structural change in the central government or National Assembly, but were still important for Park, who is facing her biggest political crisis since she took office early last year.
Hong said the election results would have little impact on public calls for Park to reform the government and change her leadership style in the wake of the ferry sinking. "They've already got public demands for those, and it's Park and her government's duty to respond to those demands," he said.
The voter turnout was tentatively estimated at about 57 percent, the highest for mayoral and gubernatorial elections since 1998, according to election officials.
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 excessive cargo on the ship, crew members' abandonment of passengers, and the coast guard's slow, unprofessional rescue operations are likely contributing factors for the disaster.