(Adds Park leads in exit polls in 5th paragraph.)
Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Seoul’s voters today choose between a liberal activist and a former ruling party spokeswoman in a mayoral contest that may be a bellwether for South Korea’s presidential race next year.
Independent candidate Park Won Soon faces off against Na Kyung Won, a lawmaker from President Lee Myung Bak’s Grand National Party, to lead the capital of 10 million people. They are vying to replace Oh Se Hoon, who resigned as mayor in August after losing a fight to curb free student lunches in order to reduce public spending.
The dispute reflected a national debate on welfare spending amid concerns over rising prices under Lee, whose popularity has plunged more than half since taking office. Park has criticized the government’s tough stance toward North Korea and is backed by software entrepreneur and possible presidential candidate Ahn Cheol Soo.
“This election will serve as a barometer for President Lee Myung Bak’s administration,” said Kang Won Taek, a professor of political science at Seoul National University. “Losing would be a serious blow to Lee’s government and the ruling party.”
Park with 54.4 percent led Na on 45.2 percent in an exit poll released by television broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS after voting closed at 8 p.m. in Seoul. The poll had a margin for error of 1.2 percentage point.
The National Election Commission will announce the results on its website late tonight or early tomorrow.
Seoul’s population accounts for more than 20 percent of the country and about a quarter of South Korea’s $1 trillion economy, which faces “downside risks to growth” because of Europe’s debt crisis, the Bank of Korea said on Oct. 13.
Consumer prices rose 4.3 percent in September after rising 5.3 percent in August, the fastest pace in three years. Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong Soo said last week the economy may fall short of his 4.3 percent growth estimate this year. The central bank’s desire to raise interest rates to fight inflation is being hindered by the uncertain economic outlook, he said.
Lee’s approval rating has fallen to 32.3 percent from 76 percent when he took office in February 2008, according to a weekly survey of 3,750 people by Realmeter conducted Oct. 17-21. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.
The 55-year-old Park is a civil rights lawyer and has worked with organizations including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, which helped organize protests against lifting a ban on U.S. beef imports in 2008. Park asserts that Lee’s North Korea stance contributed to last year’s attacks that killed 50 of his countrymen.
Na, 47, is a former district court judge who was first elected to public office in 2004. She blames Kim Jong Il’s regime for the hostilities, including the March 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors. North Korea denied any involvement in the incident. Na is backed by likely GNP presidential candidate Park Geun Hye, the daughter of former president Park Chung Hee.
Lee rolled back predecessor Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement and dialogue with North Korea, saying the policy rewarded the regime for provocative behavior.
Support for Park and Anh, the 49-year-old founder of software company Ahnlab Inc., is highest among younger voters. This could hamper Park because the election is being held on a workday and could reduce voter participation, according to Kim Yong Ho, a professor of political science at Inha University in Incheon. Na has stronger support among older voters, Kim said.
“A victory by Park would serve as a springboard for a presidential challenge by Ahn,” Kim said.
Both candidates have pledged to cut the city’s deficit by billions of dollars and to build more apartments to alleviate a rental squeeze. Park supports free lunches for all elementary and junior high school students in Seoul. Na favors subsidizing lunches based on household income.
Seats in South Korea’s 299-member National Assembly are up for election in April next year. The presidential election will be held in December 2012 before Lee’s single five-year term ends in February 2013.
--With asssitance from Eunkyung Seo in Seoul. Editors: John Brinsley, Brett Miller
To contact the reporters on this story: Taejin Park in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org; William Sim in Seoul at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at firstname.lastname@example.org