TOKYO, Japan — Today's parliamentary elections in South Korea have set up a tantalizing contest for the presidency later this year — a vote that will determine how the country deals with North Korea and addresses pressing domestic issues, such as corruption and the widening gap between rich and poor.
South Korean media reported on Tuesday evening local time that the ruling conservative New Frontier Party had opened up a narrow lead over its main challenger, the Democratic United Party, in elections for the 300-seat national assembly.
Voters went to the polls amid reports that North Korea had begun injecting fuel into a rocket ahead of a controversial launch expected to take place between Thursday and Monday.
The regime in Pyongyang has so far ignored calls from the US, Russia, Japan and South Korea to abort the launch, which the North describes as a peaceful mission to put a weather satellite into orbit. Earlier this week North Korean space officials described claims that the launch is a cover for a ballistic missile test as "nonsense."
South Korean voters seemed unperturbed by the imminent rocket launch; instead the election battleground is being fought over mounting discontent with President Lee Myung Bak's pro-business policies.
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Center-left candidates were hoping to tap into public anger with the Lee administration over allegations of sleaze and deepening inequality in the world's 11th biggest economy.
With just under one-third of the votes counted, governing party candidates were leading in 126 districts, while Democratic United candidates led in 106, according to the Yonhap news agency. The South Korean broadcaster KBS predicted New Frontier would win up to 153 seats, with its rival picking up as many as 148 seats.
A left-leaning coalition involving the Democratic United and the smaller United Progressive Party could add to pressure on Lee to soften his stance on North Korea. Lee, who was elected in 2008, dispensed with the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with Pyongyang pioneered by Kim Dae Jung in the late 1990s.
But with the North preparing for a missile launch and a possible third nuclear test, Lee's party has sought to boost its vote by portraying the opposition as soft on Pyongyang at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In the elections — the first time they have been held the same year as the presidential race for 20 years — 246 lawmakers are elected directly, and the remainder through proportional representation.
At a relatively high 54.3 percent, voter turnout may mean that opposition candidates succeeded in persuading younger, more liberal voters traditionally deterred by traditional politics to go to the polls.
Although analysts say the result is unlikely to prompt major changes in domestic or foreign policy, the contest is seen as the best indication yet of who might become the country's next president in December.
Lee is constitutionally forbidden from standing for a second term, but a United Front victory, however slim, in today's elections would put his party's presumed presidential candidate, Park Geun Hye — the daughter of former dictator Park Chung Hee — in a stronger position against Democratic United's likely candidate, Moon Jae In.
The possible presence of high-profile independent candidates on the presidential ballot paper has added to the electoral intrigue. They include Ahn Cheol Soo, a university professor and founder of one of South Korea's most successful software companies, who in a typically colorful TV campaign ad drew on the wild popularity of the Angry Birds game to urge young voters to reject candidates with ties to powerful conglomerates.
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