South Koreans were turning out in larger numbers than expected Wednesday in a local election seen more as a mid-term referendum on the Lee Myung-bak administration grappling with an increasingly belligerent North Korea, Yonhap reported.
A total of 3,991 officials, including 16 metropolitan mayors and provincial governors, and 228 heads of lower-level administrative units, will be chosen in the first nationwide election in two years.
The National Election Commission (NEC) put the turnout at 34.1 percent as of 1 p.m., seven hours after the polls opened, running slightly higher than anticipated and more than previous local elections in 2006. The election watchdog, which was not sure the turnout would exceed 50 percent, said it will probably pass the mark.
The turnout could sway results in closely-contested districts. Higher number of voters usually meant more of younger, left-leaning people cast their votes.
Voting started at 6 a.m. at 13,388 polling stations across the country and was to close 12 hours later.
The nation's three major television networks -- KBS, MBC and SBS -- plan to announce the results of their exit polls right after the voting booths close at 6 p.m. Official results are expected early Thursday morning, except in districts where vote counts are too close to call.
The election watchdog tallied eligible voters at 38.85 million, or 77.7 percent of the nation's population of 49.97 million.
President Lee Myung-bak, Prime Minister Chung Un-chan and other politicians all voted early.
"I pressed down the ink hard so that my vote won't turn out void," the president said. "I gave my votes to good workers."
In Incheon, just west of Seoul, a 110-year-old grandmother came in to cast her vote, supported by a cane and her 80-year-old daughter. Tractors were used in remote farming villages to transport residents to polling stations while ambulances helped the handicapped. Residents stranded by an overflowed dam were carried by a boat.
The voting papers were color-coded to differentiate eight offices ranging from governors and mayors to city council members and officials to be elected in proportional representation. The information packet for Wednesday's elections was among one of the thickest and apparently confused voters.
"I went blank after I was handed eight separate ballot papers," a woman voting in the southern city of Busan said. "Now I can't remember which candidate I voted for."
Kim Sang-gap said he brought a memo to help him remember.
"I knew I wouldn't be able to remember, so I brought my own 'cheat sheet.'" he said. "This is the first time I had to do that."
The elections were being held amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula in the aftermath of March's sinking of a South Korean warship by North Korea, an issue that overshadowed other political agendas. The week before the election, President Lee told the nation that North Korea policy will be reviewed in its entirety and relations with the communist neighbor changed.
North Korea, which denies sinking the warship, on Tuesday asked South Koreans to "deal sledgehammer blows" to the Lee government.
"You people of all strata in South Korea, vote against the Lee Myung-bak group, representing your mounting grudge and resentment," the North's National Reconciliation Council said.
National security concerns had a tendency to draw voters to the ruling camp in previous elections. Recent polls conducted by media companies, including TV broadcasters, forecast that the ruling Grand National Party is expected to sweep at least seven of the 16 metropolitan mayoral and gubernatorial positions, while the main opposition Democratic Party is expected to secure at least three.
Voter turnout was 46.1 percent in the 2008 general elections and 51.6 percent in the 2006 local elections.