Rival parties were neck-and-neck Wednesday in South Korea's legislative election, a key test of sentiment before December's presidential vote, according to TV exit polls released after voting ended.
With the official result not due until after midnight (1500 GMT), exit polls said the contest between the ruling conservative New Frontier Party (NFP) and the opposition centre-left Democratic United Party (DUP) was too close to call.
KBS TV said both parties had won between 131 and 147 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. MBC said the NFP had won between 130 and 153 while the DUP had secured between 128 and 148.
According to SBS the NFP won between 126 and 151 seats compared with 128 to 150 for the DUP.
The ruling party is struggling to preserve its parliamentary majority to pave the way for a second successive presidential victory in eight months' time.
It had 165 seats in the outgoing parliament against 89 for the DUP.
Both parties were cautious in forecasting the outcome.
"It's close and we have to wait and see final results," DUP secretary general Park Sun-Sook told reporters.
With economic concerns sidelining worries over North Korea, the DUP tried to exploit discontent over rising prices, high education and housing costs, job difficulties, a widening income gap and a weak welfare system.
Turnout was 53.7 percent compared to 46.1 percent four years ago, according to interim figures by election officials. A high figure was seen as indicating strong participation by young voters, which would benefit the opposition.
The ruling party depicted its opponents as socially divisive and bent on undermining a decades-old security alliance with the United States, particularly through their vow to renegotiate a recently ratified free trade deal with the United States.
The DUP meanwhile called on voters to pass judgement on President Lee Myung-Bak's administration.
"Democracy has retreated, people's livelihood suffered and inter-Korean ties have broken down during the four years of the Lee government," it said in a statement.
The ruling party ditched its old name of the Grand National Party ahead of the election and moved to the left to try to shake off its image as a party for the rich. It pledged to improve state welfare programmes.
North Korea's impending rocket launch is the main focus of international attention but has barely figured in the election campaign in the South, which is used to tension with its communist neighbour.
Pyongyang, nevertheless, has repeatedly urged South Koreans to vote out the conservatives who scrapped a cross-border aid and engagement policy.
"Young voters, students and people must deliver a crushing defeat to the traitors," the ruling party daily Rodong Sinmun said.
The election is a test for presidential hopefuls, particularly as it will be the first time for two decades that the presidential and parliamentary elections fall in the same year.
These include NFP leader Park Geun-Hye and her potential opposition rival Moon Jae-In. Lee cannot constitutionally stand for a second term.
"I voted for the NFP for stability," 80-year-old Cho Sun-Jae told AFP as he left a polling station in Seocho district in southern Seoul.
Kim Jin-Young, a 31-year-old office worker in Seoul, said she voted for the opposition. "At least the DUP seems to be the lesser of two evils," she said after casting her ballot at Deokso district in the east of the capital.
The parliament will have 246 directly contested seats and 54 proportional representation seats, allocated to parties according to the total numbers of votes they receive nationwide.
Each voter receives two ballots, one for a candidate and one for a party.
Source: AFP Global Edition