(ATTN: UPDATES with quotes of officials of ruling and opposition parties)
SEOUL, April 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korea’s ruling Saenuri Party is slightly ahead of its main opposition rival in Wednesday's tightly contested parliamentary elections, though it may not win a parliamentary majority, an exit poll said.
An exit poll by South Korea's public broadcaster KBS predicted that the ruling Saenuri Party could win between 121-143 while the main opposition Minjoo Party could secure between 101-123 seats out of the total 300 seats up for grabs.
KBS conducted the joint exit poll with two other broadcasters MBC and SBS, though they have different predictions on the results of the elections as they use different tools.
The poll released by MBC showed the ruling party winning between 118-136 seats against the Minjoo Party's 107-128 seats.
An SBS poll forecast the ruling party winning between 123-147 seats and the Minjoo Party securing 97-120 seats.
The minor opposition People's Party is projected to win between 31-43 seats while independent candidates are expected to secure between 8-20 seats, according to the poll released by the three broadcasters.
The People's Party broke away from the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, which later changed its name to the Minjoo Party ahead of the elections in an apparent move to improve its image.
In South Korea, changing a party's name is a common vote-buying tactic, although its members rarely change.
Some ruling party candidates had been seen as front-runners in Seoul and its adjacent cities in pre-elections opinion polls, but they were trailing in the exit polls, according to the joint survey.
The ruling party, which had been initially forecast to win an easy victory, voiced concerns but tried to stay optimistic.
"We are extremely worried about the exit poll," Won Yoo-cheol, floor leader of the Saenuri Party, said after seeing the poll results.
He acknowledged that his party had disappointed many voters over high-profile infighting during the process of nominating candidates.
Meanwhile, the main opposition Minjoo Party is expected to do better than expected while candidates of the People's Party are poised to prevail in the southwestern city of Gwangju, a key political stronghold of the main opposition Minjoo Party and its predecessors.
The Minjoo Party sounded a cautious note on the initial results, though the exit poll showed that the party could grab more than 100 seats, which is higher than the result of last week's survey.
"I was attuned to what the people were saying when I campaigning," said Kim Chong-in, interim chairman of the party, adding that he will humbly waiting for the official result.
The minor opposition People's Party was upbeat as the exit poll showed that the party can win up to 43 seats.
The exit poll, meanwhile, showed that the ruling party could win between 15-19 proportional representation seats while the main opposition Minjoo Party could secure between 11-14 proportional representation seats.
The National Assembly will be comprised of 253 directly contested seats and 47 proportional representation seats to be allocated to parties according to the total number of votes they receive.
Each voter was asked to cast two ballots: one for a candidate and the other for a party.
The term of elected lawmakers is set to begin on May 30.
Currently, the ruling party has 146 seats, while the main opposition Minjoo Party and the People's Party have 102 and 20 seats in the 292-member legislature, respectively. Seven other seats are held by three other minor parties while 17 seats are independents.
The total number of parliamentary seats was 300 in 2012, but it has since dropped to 292 as some of them later lost their seats.
The polls are crucial in South Korean politics as they will shape the legislative landscape for the next four years and gauge public sentiment ahead of next year's presidential race.
South Koreans will go to the polls in December 2017 to elect a new leader to succeed President Park Geun-hye, whose single five-year term ends in early 2018. By law, she cannot seek re-election.
Wednesday's elections came amid tensions on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea's nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year.
There has been speculation that North Korea may carry out a fifth nuclear test or launch a long-range missile to mark the birthday of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung on Friday. Kim, who died in 1994, is the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.
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