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Low Turnout Expected in South Korean Elections - 2002-06-13

Turnout in South Korea's local elections is expected to fall to a record low Thursday, with millions of voters disillusioned with political corruption and more people interested in the World Cup football tournament which their nation is now co-hosting.

Balloting is underway in South Korea's local elections to choose more than 4,000 local government officials, including mayors of seven cities and nine provincial governors.

About 33 million people are eligible to vote in the poll, which is widely viewed as a barometer for the December presidential election.

However, politicians are concerned about predictions of very low turnout, partly the result of the World Cup football finals, which South Korea is now co-hosting with Japan. The National Election Commission forecasts a turnout of around 45 percent, which would be the lowest since local elections were re-introduced in the mid 1990s, as South Korea emerged from 30 years of military dictatorship.

Kim Jeung-hi, an election official in the Jongno District Office in central Seoul, says the fear is that people are not interested because they want to watch football, but, so far, the turnout is good at his polling station.

Analysts say a widespread disillusionment with politics is also discouraging voters. The ruling party has been hit by several alleged financial scandals that have brought down top aides of President Kim Dae-jung and even landed his youngest son, Kim Hong-gul, in jail. The son is awaiting trial on influence-peddling and tax evasion charges. The opposition party has also had its share of corruption scandals.

Even the local elections have been sullied by corruption allegations.

An independent election watchdog says the pre-election campaign has been the worst on record, for bribery, with rival parties offering voters cash and gifts to secure votes.

Eighty-six-year-old Hwang In-seop is a retired policeman who supports the ruling Millennium Democratic Party. He says he cast a ballot, but he feels it does not matter because all of South Korea's politicians are irresponsible. He adds that politicians should help the country develop, but all they seem to do is cause harm.

Myeong Sin-ja, a 40-year-old restaurant owner who backs the opposition Grand National Party, says she voted with the hope for a change in the direction of South Korean politics.

The country's two main parties, the liberal ruling Millennium Democratic Party and the conservative opposition Grand National Party view this poll as a key test of public opinion before the presidential election, December 19. MDP presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun has vowed to reconsider his candidacy, if his party performs poorly.

Mr. Roh, a former human rights lawyer, maintained a double-digit lead over rival candidate Lee Hoi Chang in polling several months ago. Now, he leads by only a slim margin.