Campaigns for the June 4 local elections are in full swing, albeit subdued due to the mourning for the victims of the Sewol ferry sinking.
In the quadrennial races, about 9,000 candidates are running for nearly 4,000 posts, including governors, mayors and education superintendents of the 17 provinces and metropolitan cities, chief administrators of more than 200 smaller local governments and nearly 3,700 local council members.
From the perspective of national politics, the upcoming elections are the first major ones since President Park Geun-hye took office in February 2013. Even without the Sewol ferry disaster, the elections had largely been expected to become a referendum on the Park administration and the ruling party.
The Sewol calamity naturally increased the elections’ implications for national politics. The disaster and the Park government’s bungled response have already pulled down approval ratings for the president and the ruling Saenuri Party’s candidates.
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy and the progressive bloc are all out to take advantage of the ferry disaster in fanning antigovernment sentiment. “Park Step Down” is one of the most easily seen slogans in antigovernment protests organized by liberal groups in the name of mourning for the Sewol victims.
On Saturday, progressive groups held a candlelight vigil in Seoul, after which participants attempted to march to Cheong Wa Dae. Conservative groups countered by holding their own rally nearby.
As the voting day draws nearer, this ideological confrontation is likely to escalate, which is not desirable in that the local elections are meant to elect representatives of local residents. Voters should not be swayed by those who try to exploit the Sewol sinking for political gain.
It is quite natural that rival parties and candidates are engaged in low-key campaigns due to the Sewol tragedy. Many are refraining from using loudspeakers, campaign songs and dancing.
But this should not worsen the already low public interest in the elections. It is worrisome that opinion polls show that more voters than in the past don’t even know the names of gubernatorial and mayoral candidates in their areas.
The Sewol tragedy requires voters to sensibly exercise their rights and select those with competence and high ethical standards. Voters will also have to scrutinize each candidate’s election promises. The ferry disaster amply showed what happens when we have the wrong people in public office.