SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's ruling conservatives were headed for a surprise victory in a parliamentary election on Wednesday, boosting leader Park Geun-hye's stature as a top presidential contender despite a liberal surge.
The New Frontier Party was closing in on capturing a majority and denying left-leaning parties the numbers needed to form a coalition. The parliament is expected to have little legislative impact in the final year of pro-business President Lee Myung-bak's term.
Park Geun-hye has been credited with single-handedly rescuing an embattled party that only three months ago seemed certain to lose control of the parliament and give up the presidential office back to the liberals after a single five-year term.
"The voters set aside the chance to punish President Lee Myung-bak and instead voted for the person who holds the future power," said Hong Sung-gul of Kookmin University. "Park Geun-hye practically clinched her status as the top presidential choice."
As at 1900 GMT, the New Frontier Party seemed to have won 152 of the 300 seats in the unicameral assembly, with votes still being counted.
The major issues for voters were rising prices, allegations of sleaze in government and growing discontent over the power of big business, all of which could go against the ruling Saenuri Party.
A public opinion poll conducted by KBS television three days before the election and released after the polls closed at 0900 GMT showed Park pulling ahead as presidential candidate with 33 percent support versus the second-place competitor with 21 percent.
Voter turnout was 54 percent, compared with 46.1 percent in the last parliamentary election four years ago which was one of the lowest voting rates ever, but short of the 60 percent or more that the left had hoped to help boost their numbers.
A win for the pro-business Saenuri Party is a huge boost for its leader Park, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee. She has been dubbed the "Queen of Elections" for a string of poll wins since 2003.
Pitted against Park was the left-wing coalition that has vowed to rein in the huge conglomerates that dominate South Korea's economy.
"The Park Geun-hye effect has been very, very big. She rolled up her sleeves and it has practically been just her single handed," said independent political commentator Yu Chang-seon.
The conservatives currently hold 162 out of 299 seats in parliament and control the presidency. This is the first time in two decades that both polls have been held in the same year.
Riding on a tide of public discontent with the political establishment, human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in surged into the running for the presidency after helping to bring the disparate centre-left into a coalition late last year.
Moon, who won a seat in the traditional conservative stronghold of the southern city Busan, advocates more welfare spending and closer ties with North Korea, which has defied international warnings to move ahead with a planned long-range rocket launch this week.
The rocket launch and the threat of a third nuclear test by North Korea, which remains technically at war with the south, have not been major factors in the elections.
The opposition is counting on the power of young voters and social media to boost its chances.
Another potential presidential contender who could lead a united centre left, software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo, urged voters to turn out to express their displeasure with the government.
Ahn, who has superstar status among younger voters, likened the opportunity to cast a vote to hit computer game "Angry Birds".
He put out a clip on Youtube titled "Angry Just Vote" saying younger voters had the chance to turf out the government that backed vested business interests
He had also promised to put on a skirt and dance if turnout reached 70 percent, a level that would virtually ensure a win for the centre left.
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and Reuters TV; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani