The deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea overshadowed local elections today, seen as a gauge of public sentiment toward the pro-American president's handling of the security crisis.
Outrage over the sinking, which killed 46 sailors, bolstered support for President Lee Myung-bak's ruling conservative Grand National Party ahead of the vote that will fill 3,991 positions _ including key mayoral jobs that often serve as springboards for future national leaders, polls and analysts said.
Voters cast ballots at 13,388 polling stations for the races that include about 9,900 candidates nationwide. Late afternoon voter turnout was 43.2 percent of the country's 38.8 million eligible voters, the nation's election watchdog said.
Before the ship sank two months ago, Lee struggled with growing controversy over massive infrastructure projects. Fierce infighting threatened to split his party in two.
But the March 26 downing of the warship has dominated headlines for weeks and has overshadowed other hot-button issues. Security jitters about North Korea deepened after a multinational investigation concluded a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine tore apart and sank the 1,200-ton Cheonan warship.
The United States and South Korea have decided to hold a massive anti-submarine exercise in the Yellow Sea early next week as part of their punitive measures on the North, the Yonhap news agency said today, citing an unidentified South Korean military official.
Calls to the military and the U.S. command in Seoul were not immediately answered today, a national holiday. "The Cheonan helped the GNP. Its sinking mustered conservative votes," said Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea. "In fact, the GNP hadn't been in good shape."
Analyst Park Kie-duk agreed. "Above all, we still have the bitter memories of the Korean War," said Park.