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South Korea's ruling party avoids election loss despite ferry disaster

SEOUL -- South Korea's ruling party breathed a sigh of relief Thursday after a stronger-than-expected showing in local elections seen as a referendum on President Park Geun-hye's handling of April's ferry disaster that killed about 300 people.

Despite fears of a voter backlash, Park's Saenuri Party managed 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 voters to register their dissatisfaction with Park's response to the Sewol ferry tragedy, took nine.

“I don't think either side can really claim much of a victory,” said Choi Jin, head of the Institute for Presidential Leadership.

“The opposition was hoping for more but, given Park's high ratings before the Sewol disaster, it's still done better than it would have expected two months ago,” he added.

Park's administration was sharply criticized over the Sewol disaster and the polls were the first real opportunity to measure the severity of the political impact 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.

“We put up a good defense even in the midst of the Sewol disaster,” party secretary general Yoon Sang-hyun told reporters.

In a statement, the presidential Blue House said it “humbly” accepted the election outcome.

The high popularity ratings Park has enjoyed since taking 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.

Overcoming Public Anger

Initial investigations exposed a culture of institutional negligence, greed and incompetence that contributed to the scale of the tragedy, most of whose 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.

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