SEOUL, South Korea — The South Korean president's conservative party could get a boost in local elections today that are serving as a progress report on how the pro-American leader is handling a crisis with North Korea, blamed for sinking a warship.
Outrage over the ship incident, which killed 46 sailors, was bolstering support for the ruling Grand National Party in the vote that will fill 3,991 positions — including key mayoral jobs that often serve as springboards for future national leaders, polls and analysts said.
Voters started casting ballots at 13,388 polling stations for the races that include about 9,900 candidates nationwide.
Before the ship sank two months ago, President Lee Myung Bak was struggling with growing controversy over massive infrastructure projects. Fierce infighting threatened to split his party into two.
But the March 26 downing of the warship has dominated headlines for weeks and has overshadowed other hot-button issues. Security jitters about North Korea deepened after a multinational investigation concluded that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine tore apart and sank the 1,200-ton Cheonan warship.
"The Cheonan helped the GNP. Its sinking mustered conservative votes," said Chung Jin Young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea. "In fact, the GNP hadn't been in a good shape."
Analyst Park Kie Duk agreed. "Above all, we still have the bitter memories of the Korean War," said Park, of the private Sejong Institute near Seoul.
The main opposition Democratic Party has accused the government of exploiting the sinking for the elections, saying Lee should have announced the investigation results after the polls.
North Korea, which has repeatedly denied attacking the ship, has accused the South Korean leader of staging the sinking for election purposes.