Seoul:  South Korea’s ruling party breathed a sigh of relief today after a better-than-expected showing in local elections seen as a referendum on President Park Geun-Hye’s handling of the April ferry disaster that killed about 300 people.

With counting still continuing from Wednesday’s nationwide polls, Park’s Saenuri Party was set to win eight of the 17 main contests for city mayors and provincial governors.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), which had urged a protest vote against Park’s response to the Sewol ferry tragedy, had won or was leading in nine races.

Park’s administration was sharply criticised for its handling of the Sewol disaster and the polls were the first real opportunity to measure the severity of the political fallout on a national level.

As well as retaining posts in its traditional regional strongholds, the Saenuri Party managed to win a number of battleground contests in Incheon city and Gyeonggi province.

“I believe we put up a good defence even in the midst of the Sewol disaster,” party secretary general Yoon Sang-Hyun told reporters.

The high popularity ratings Park has enjoyed since taking in office in February 2013 have been hammered by the sinking of the 6,825-tonne Sewol on April 16 — the defining moment of her presidency so far.

Initial investigations exposed a culture of institutional negligence, greed and incompetence that contributed to the scale of the tragedy, in which most of the victims were schoolchildren.

Although these problems have roots stretching back decades, Park and her officials became a default focus for much of the public grief and anti-establishment anger.

As a result, local issues were largely pushed aside in yesterday’s elections, as the rival parties concentrated on attacking and defending the president’s reputation.

While the NPAD asked voters to hold Park responsible, the ruling party urged them to support the president’s vow to overhaul the country’s safety infrastructure.

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