Turnout may decide Seoul mayoral race
Published : Oct 14, 2011 - 19:37
Updated : Oct 14, 2011 - 19:37
Candidates remain neck-and-neck on day two of official campaign

The Grand National Party’s candidate for Seoul mayor was leading the polls after three television debates and two days of campaigning, though by a small margin which experts say could easily be reversed on a strong turnout.

On the second day of official campaigning Friday, Na Kyung-won of the GNP and Park Won-soon, an opposition-backed independent candidate, busied themselves from early morning, meeting office workers going to work.

The Oct. 26 by-elections, with the top post of Seoul mayor at stake, are expected to influence the political power structure in the lead up to bigger elections next year. The race for the Seoul office, left vacant since Mayor Oh Se-hoon resigned after losing the free school lunch referendum, is especially important as more than a fifth of the nation’s population lives in Seoul, with some 8.4 million eligible voters.

Na, a mother of two with strong backing from Seoul moms, is leading the race by 3-5 percentage points, according to preliminary polls, a turnaround from the previous week when she was trailing behind her rival by nearly 10 percentage points.

“Although candidate Na has obviously narrowed the gap, it is too soon to say the table has been turned completely,” Yoon Hee-woong, a researcher at Korea Society Opinion Institute told a radio interview Friday.

“There are several factors that could influence the final result,” Yoon added, noting how voter turnout, candidates’ campaigning via social networking services and overall sentiment toward political parties could change the results.

Park, a lawyer-turned-activist, has been promoting his policies and vision through his many young followers and friends on social networking services. His right wing rival and the ruling party have been somewhat slower to take up the trend.

With 45 percent turnout as the tipping point, a higher turnout is expected to favor Park, who is more popular among the progressive younger voters.

Up to 65 percent of Seoul voters said they would “definitely vote,” Seoul city said Thursday, quoting a recent poll of 500 eligible voters. But fewer people may actually show up as the elections take place on a workday, they added.

Jin Sung-ho and Rhyu Si-min, working on the election camps of Na and Park, respectively, both admitted that the race was neck-and-neck.

“We will win, but by a very small margin,” Rhyu said in a radio interview Friday.

In their third television debate Thursday night, the two candidates squared off over ethics and policy pledges.

Na raised suspicions over Park’s “deliberate manipulation” of his scholastic background and questioned his lack of administrative capabilities.

Park criticized Na, a two-term lawmaker of the GNP, for her biased views on ex-President Roh Moo-hyun who committed suicide amid prosecutorial investigations that many said were politically motivated.

While Park has promised to create more jobs and provide low-income households with more affordable rent, Na has been promising better welfare and public child care programs for working moms.

Also among factors that could influence the fate of the two candidates is the support of two influential political and economic figures.

Na’s increased approval rating is said to be partly due to Park Geun-hye’s help in election campaigning. Park, considered the strongest contender for the next president, has, until now, distanced herself from party affairs and by-elections where there is so much political risk.

Meanwhile, the opposition camp is eying active support by star IT entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo, who was once considered a strong candidate for Seoul mayor. Ahn said he would not run in early September but would endorse Park and has yet to decide whether he will help out during the campaign.

By Shin Hae-in (