SEOUL, April 7 (UPI) -- Citizens in South Korea's capital, Seoul, and its second-largest city, Busan, went to the polls Wednesday to vote in mayoral by-elections that are widely viewed as a referendum on the ruling Democratic Party and bellwethers for next year's presidential race.
At 7 p.m., an hour before polls closed, turnout was 54.4% of the 8.4 million eligible voters in Seoul, on course to fall short of the 59.9% seen in 2018 local elections.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. in nearly 3,500 locations around the country, with a handful of other local elections also being held. Modest lines formed at several locations in Seoul as voters turned up before work to cast their ballots under COVID-19 social distancing measures that included 1-meter spacing and temperature checks at the entrance to polling stations.
In Seoul, the main contenders are Democratic Party candidate Park Young-sun and the opposition People Power Party candidate Oh Se-hoon. Early results are expected to come in overnight. In the most recent surveys, conducted before a one-week blackout ahead of the election, Oh held a commanding a lead of around 20 points over Park.
In Busan, the PPP's Park Hyung-joon was also polling well ahead of the Democratic Party's Kim Young-choon.
For many voters, it appears that the mayoral elections offered a chance to send a message about the job the ruling Democratic Party has done. The party of President Moon Jae-in has seen its approval ratings plummet in recent months due to the government's inability to rein in an overheated housing market that has seen home prices in Seoul shoot up more than 50% during Moon's tenure.
A land speculation scandal at state housing developer LH also erupted last month, causing widespread public outrage and further damaging the ruling party's election prospects.
The mayoral races in Busan and Seoul were special by-elections held after both seats were vacated last year under a cloud of scandal.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, a leading figure in the Democratic Party who was considered a potential presidential contender for 2022, died by suicide in July as sexual abuse allegations by his former secretary went public.
Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don, also a member of the Democratic Party, resigned last April after admitting to sexual assault of a public servant during a meeting in his office.
The newly elected mayors will serve out the remaining 14 months of the previous mayors' four-year terms.
Moon, who has one year left in his term, has seen his popular support plunge to new lows in recent weeks. A survey from Gallup Korea released last week found only a 32% approval rating, the lowest of his presidency, with 58% disapproving of the job he's done.
Some 52% of survey respondents also said they favored an opposition party candidate in next March's presidential election, with just 35% preferring a Democratic Party candidate.
The atmosphere is markedly different from the general elections of one year ago, when the Democratic Party and an allied party swept to a landslide victory and a super-majority in the parliament, winning 180 of 300 seats in the National Assembly. At the time, the government was riding high on public support for its vigorous early response to the COVID-19 pandemic.