(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 7-9)
SEOUL, April 2 (Yonhap) -- Official campaigning for the April 15 parliamentary elections kicked off Thursday amid expectations that the assessment of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic will be a major issue.
The 13-day campaign period will last until the eve of the polls, according to the National Election Commission (NEC). So far, political parties have campaigned in a limited manner.
Up for grabs will be 253 directly elected seats and 47 proportional representation slots as voters will be allowed to cast two ballots -- for a candidate and a political party.
The upcoming polls will be seen as a barometer of voter sentiment ahead of the presidential election in 2022. President Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017.
Political parties plan to campaign in a calm manner amid the COVID-19 outbreak that has resulted in nearly 10,000 infections in South Korea.
The virus outbreak has not only halted conventional electioneering but also taken away voters' attention from political parties' election pledges and candidates.
It was hard to find the familiar scene of election songs blaring out at campaign rallies.
Sticking to the social distancing drive, many candidates refrained from having close contact with voters.
Instead, they focused on social media, including YouTube, to reach out to voters.
Two major rival parties are expected to compete with a focus on the government's handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout, political analysts said.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) has appealed for voters to support the government's drive to contain the coronavirus and minimize the economic impact of the outbreak.
The main opposition United Future Party (UFP) has stressed the need to "judge" the government, citing its failure to stem the pandemic at an early stage and handle the economic downturn.
The most contested battlefields for the two parties will be Seoul and the adjacent metropolitan areas, where half of a total of 253 districts are up for grabs.
The leaderships of the two parties have begun stumping in the Jongno district in central Seoul, a symbolic constituency in South Korean politics.
A high-profile race is expected in Jongno, where former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon of the DP and UFP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn will compete.
"We will prepare for the election, focusing on how to overcome the coronavirus crisis and ease people's pain," Lee told reporters after visiting a mart in the district.
UFP chief Hwang criticized the liberal government's policy, saying it endangered people's livelihoods.
"We will stop the government from repeating policy failure and make a better world for ordinary people," Hwang told reporters at a traditional market.
The ruling party has anticipated that it will win in 132 constituencies across the nation. The conservative UFP is eyeing 124-130 directly elected seats.
Political parties' race to earn more proportional representation (PR) seats will heat up more than ever.
Under the new election law, the method of distributing PR slots will be changed in a way that better reflects votes cast for parties.
Despite public criticism, the two major parties have set up affiliated satellite parties that only target PR seats, with plans to merge with them after the elections.
Meanwhile, the election watchdog is preparing for voting, prioritizing safety at polling stations amid the COVID-19 crisis.
According to the NEC, in a survey of 1,500 voters, 72.7 percent of the respondents said they would cast ballots in the upcoming elections.
This represented an 8.8 percentage-point rise compared with the 2016 parliamentary elections.
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