A South Korean male approaches the ballot box and casts his vote in Tuesday's election.
A South Korean male approaches the ballot box and casts his vote in Tuesday's election.

SEOUL - South Korean voters went to the polls Wednesday to elect to representatives to the National Assembly.   President Park Geun-hye’s ruling conservative Saenuri Party is expected to maintain a majority in the unicameral parliament.

Recent polls have shown strong public support for Park’s tough policies to respond to the growing North Korean nuclear threat, including cutting the last cooperative inter-Korean tie by closing the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Project following the Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January, imposing increased sanctions, and increasing military readiness to respond to any provocations.  

Saenuri support

At a polling station in Seoul, many voters who cast their ballots for the conservative party said national security was a key issue.

“I don't think Saenuri Party will lose over Kim Jong Un,” said Choi Jung-ja, who said she also liked the Saenuri Party candidate running in the district.

Saenuri holds half of the 292 seats in the National Assembly. In this election, the legislative body will expand to 300 seats.

“South Korea must be stabilized. National security must be strong and stabilized. That's the most important thing,” said Park Hyun-ja, who voted for the Saenuri Party candidate.

Candidates' posters for the upcoming general elect
Candidates' posters for the upcoming general elections are hung on strings over the Cheonggye stream in downtown Seoul, South Korea, Monday, April 11, 2016.

Opposition focus

Part of the main opposition party, the Minjoo Party of Korea, split off to form the separate People's Party for this election. This division among liberal groups could give the conservative candidates a higher percentage of the fragmented field.

Both opposition parties have focused on the underperforming economy that grew just 2.6 percent last year, and youth unemployment that reached 12.5 percent in February, the highest since the government started keeping records in 1999.

“I judged that the majority party cannot resolve issues of inter-Korean relations and economy, so I voted for the opposition party,” said Kim Min-soo, a technician who voted for the Minjoo Party.

The Minjoo Party promised to create 720,000 new jobs, increase the minimum wage, increase pension funds for retirees, and build massive public housing projects for the younger generation. But it is not clear how they propose to pay for these programs.

But public ambivalence over economic issues could help Saenuri keep or increase its majority in parliament.

“We are always having difficulties with the economy. We cannot be satisfied. There is no stabilized economy,” said Song Kyung-hee, a woman who voted for the Saenuri Party because of its strong position on national defense.

Supporters of the main opposition party, the Minjo
Supporters of the main opposition party, the Minjoo Party of Korea, cheer for their candidates during a campaign rally ahead of the April 13 parliamentary election in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, April 12, 2016.

Disillusioned voters

Voter turnout early in the day was lower than four years ago, reinforcing the view that this election has generated little public enthusiasm.

Some voters complained that the campaign was more personality driven and there were no significant new policy alternatives developed to challenge the status quo.

“There were many policies in the previous elections, but there was no policy which differentiates this election,” said Kang Joon-yong, a young father who said support for children and working parents were issues important to him.

Saenuri has backed a corporate friendly economic agenda, expanding free trade agreements, tax breaks for businesses and concessions from labor.

Last year tens of thousands of labor supporters participated in mass protests to oppose a labor reform bill backed by Park to make it easier for employers to fire workers.  At one rally in November, protesters fought police with steel pipes and police used water cannons and barricades against the crowd.  Some of the leaders were arrested for organizing illegal demonstrations and human rights groups criticized Park for suppressing freedom of speech. 

A strong showing by Saenuri would be seen as a big endorsement for President Park, who is halfway through her single five-year term. Attaining a super majority of 180 members would also help her enact her full legislative agenda by limiting minority filibusters and parliamentary delays by the opposition.

The country has a strong presidential system with a national leader who is limited to a single term by constitution but has control over domestic and foreign policy issues.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.