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Low Turnout Expected in Thursday's S. Korea Local Vote - 2002-06-12

Voters across South Korea cast ballots Thursday in an election for mayors, provincial governors, and other local officials. The distraction of the World Cup soccer tournament and voter apathy is expected to lead to low turnout.

More than 10,000 candidates are running in South Korea's June 13 election. Voters will choose 16 mayors and provincial governors, more than 230 district chiefs and nearly 3,500 council members.

Politicians will be watching the results closely to judge voter mood ahead of the presidential election on December 19. But there are concerns that Thursday's poll will have lower turnout than usual, making it more difficult to assess the real strength the two major parties will have going in the presidential campaign period.

Surveys predict about 45 percent of the nation's 33 million eligible voters will go to the polls. That is down from 53 percent in the last local elections.

One factor, political analysts say, is that voters are engrossed in the World Cup football tournament taking place in South Korea and the strong performance of the national team, the Red Devils.

The squad's showing appears to have spurred a burst of national pride, with hundreds of thousands of people jamming the capital's streets to watch their team play on giant television screens. In contrast, political campaign rallies are drawing just several hundred or a few thousand supporters.

With elections taking place on a national holiday, many people will take the day off and avoid polling stations altogether, especially younger voters in the throes of World Cup fever, said Lee Chung-min, a politics professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"If that is the case, we will have lower voter turnout over all. But if it is those in their 20s and under that will not vote as much as the over forties group, that will result in dividends for the opposition party and that is worrisome to the ruling party," said Prof. Lee.

The opposition Grand National Party is more conservative than the ruling Millennium Democratic Party and tends to attract older voters.

Another reason for low voter turnout, says Prof. Lee, is that many South Koreans are deeply disillusioned with political corruption scandals plaguing the administration in recent months. "Most Koreans do not want to go to the polls," he said. "And if they do go, they will say despite some economic progress and progress in inter-Korean relations in terms of greater cooperation, there is so much corruption and politics as usual that they just want to kick out the guys in power."

Prof. Lee says the alleged bribery scandal involving President Kim Dae-jung's youngest son has angered voters the most. Mr. Kim's son, Kim Hong-gul, was arraigned last week for influence-peddling and another son is under investigation.

Analysts say it could influence the election's results, even though the president recently quit the Millennium Democratic Party in an effort to distance it from his family's troubles.

Newspaper surveys indicate many South Korean voters say the creation of a clean, trustworthy government will be their main criterion when they cast ballots.