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South Korean elections test support for Moon's peace push

President's party leads in key races ahead of June 13 vote

Choo Mi-ae, head of the Democratic Party of Korea, high-fives supporters at a rally in Seoul. The ruling party aims to break into conservative strongholds like Busan.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- Campaigning for South Korea's local elections officially kicked off on Thursday, with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea aiming to translate President Moon Jae-in's popularity into victories in major races across the country.

Voters will cast their ballots on June 13 for 4,016 officials nationwide, including eight mayors of such big cities as Seoul and nine provincial governors.

Moon's approval rating remains strong, at 76% as of May 24 in a Gallup Korea poll, thanks in part to his policy of engagement toward North Korea. The Democratic Party is also on solid ground, with 53% support. The conservative Liberty Korea Party of Moon's impeached predecessor, Park Geun-hye, trails at 13%.

The progressive Democratic Party, then called the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, won nine of the 17 gubernatorial and key mayoral races last time around in 2014.

Party leader Choo Mi-ae on Wednesday expressed hopes of breaking into conservative territory this year, saying that winning in the cities of Busan and Ulsan as well as South Gyeongsang Province would mark a victory over regionalism. Opinion polls put ruling party candidates ahead in all three of these races.

Liberty Korea faces an uphill battle. It appears likely to retain strongholds Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, but how well it can defend other areas that usually lean conservative is unclear.

The Seoul mayoral race is shaping up as a three-way contest among Democratic incumbent Park Won-soon; Ahn Cheol-soo of the conservative Bareunmirae Party, or Bareun Future Party; and Liberty Korea's Kim Moon-soo. Reports put Park in the lead, but South Korean media report that the other two parties could decide on a joint candidate to boost their chances.

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