By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – About 44 million South Koreans headed to polls to elect mayors and provincial governors on Wednesday, in races seen as an early test for new President Yoon Suk-yeol and his drive for fuelling an economic recovery and tackling inequality.
Yoon took office last month after winning an unprecedentedly tight presidential election by a margin of just 0.7% in March, evidence of the deepening political, generational and gender divide that has frayed Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Stakes are high for Yoon: He seeks to stabilise runaway housing prices, boost provincial economies and expedite recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Local governments play a key role in all of those areas.
“We’ve made promises with the people, are trying to keep those promises, and the promises make changes,” Kwon Seong-dong, floor leader of Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP), wrote on Facebook on Wednesday, citing planned cash handouts for small businesses and conglomerates’ recent investment plans.
More than 4,000 offices are up for grabs, including 17 metropolitan city and provincial chiefs, as well as seven parliamentary seats.
The turnout was 38.3% for the local offices and 41.8% for parliamentary seats as of 13:00 p.m. (0400 GMT), after early voting numbers posted the highest levels in the country’s democratic history, about 21%.
Among the most hotly contested are governor of the most populous province of Gyeonggi and a parliamentary seat from Incheon, west of the capital, Seoul. Those winners, together with the Seoul mayor’s office, would be crucial to Yoon’s push to cut home prices and expand supplies in the greater capital area.
Yoon’s former spokeswoman and incumbent lawmaker, Kim Eun-hye, is vying for Gyeonggi governor against Kim Dong-yeon, an ally of former Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung.
Lee is running for the Incheon seat, facing a new rival who secured robust support from the PPP.
Polls showed both races were within the margins of error, while the incumbent Seoul mayor from the PPP is expected to retain the job.
A defeat of Lee would be devastating for the Democrats, who dominate the 300-member parliament but have seen their popularity wane in recent years amid voter disillusionment over economic policy failures, hypocrisy and political and sex abuse scandals.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Gerry Doyle)