The campaign for the upcoming local elections will begin this week, with public safety emerging as a hot-button issue following last month's deadly ferry sinking.
The 13-day official campaigning period for the June 4 legislative elections starts on Thursday and will run through the eve of election day, according to the National Election Commission.
Up for grabs in the elections are 17 new provincial governor and mayor posts, including mayorship of the capital Seoul, as well as more than 3,900 seats on local councils and five education superintendent positions.
The polls are seen as a mid-term referendum on the administration of President Park Geun-hye, which has been hit by a firestorm of public criticism over the government's poor handling of the ferry accident that has left more than 300 people dead or missing.
The 6,825-ton ferry carrying an estimated 476 people sank off the country's southwest coast on April 16. A total of 286 passengers have been confirmed dead, with 18 others still missing.
Analysts said the tragedy is likely to work against the Saenuri Party with its candidates suffering from declining approval ratings amid seething public anger over the government's poor initial response.
Should the ruling party lose the elections, the Park administration, which took office in February 2013, would face difficulty pushing for major policies down the road, they said.
The stakes are also high for the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, which lost the 2012 general elections and presidential polls to the Saenuri Pary, according to analysts.
In the wake of the tragic maritime accident, public safety has emerged as the hottest campaign issue, with major candidates pledging to make the lives of the public safer.
The biggest battleground of the local elections is the nation's capital, where current Mayor Park Won-soon is running against Chung Mong-joon, a seven-term lawmaker of the ruling party who once served as FIFA vice chairman. Chung is also a billionaire who has the biggest stake in Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., the world's top shipyard.
The Seoul mayorship carries an extra weight in South Korean politics as it is often deemed a steppingstone to the presidency.
Former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak was elected president in 2002, running on his accomplishments as the top administrator of the city.
According to government data, the number of eligible voters for the upcoming local elections stands at 41.3 million, up 2.44 million from the 2010 local polls, with 41 percent of them aged 50 or higher. (Yonhap)