South Koreans went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president who will shape Asia’s fourth-largest economy riven by gender and generational divides, face off with a confrontational North Korea, and guide the country’s rising status in the world.
The campaign was marked by surprises, scandals and smears, but the policy stakes are high for the country’s 52 million residents, and whoever they elect to be president for the next five years.
The winner will face mounting challenges including handling the effects of South Korea’s worst wave of COVID-19 infections, deepening inequality and surging housing prices, and navigating the increasingly tense rivalry between China and the United States.
Voters are looking for a leader who can root out corruption and initiate negotiations to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The contest is shaping as a tight two-way race between Lee Jae-myung, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party.
They are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.
A win by the conservative opposition would represent a remarkable turnaround for a party that was in disarray after the last election in 2017, held early after the impeachment and dismissal of President Park Geun-hye.
Moon’s liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, is fighting to protect and continue his agenda, and also to head off threats by Yoon to investigate the outgoing president’s administration for corruption if elected.
The two presidents before Moon, including Park, were imprisoned after they left office. Moon faces no specific allegations of wrongdoing, but his administration faced several major corruption scandals among top officials.
Polls last week showed a slight edge for Yoon, who secured a surprise, last-minute boost when a fellow conservative running a distant third dropped out and threw Yoon his support.
In the absence of opinion polls over the past six days, Yoon’s camp said on Monday it expected to win with a 10% margin, while Lee’s team predicted it would come out on top by 1-2%.
According to Reuters, out of about 44 million eligible voters nationwide, more than 61% had cast their votes by 1 p.m. on Wednesday, election authorities said. That number includes record turnout in early voting that began on Friday.
A former prosecutor general, Yoon has vowed to fight corruption, foster justice and create a more level playing field, while seeking a harder line toward North Korea and a “reset” with China.
Lee was governor of the most populous province of Gyeonggi and shot to fame with his aggressive coronavirus responses and advocacy for universal basic income.
Both candidates’ disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, mud-slinging and gaffes dominated what was dubbed the “unlikeable election”.
Young voters who backed Moon but became disillusioned with economic problems and corruption scandals are seen as a key bloc.
Lee Sung-jin, 33, said he had heard that the turnout among people in their 20s and 30s would be important.
“As the current problems for young people concerning employment and housing prices are serious, I voted for a candidate who made a pledge to come up with solutions,” he said as he cast his vote in Seoul, without specifying who he voted for.
With more than 1 million COVID patients treating themselves at home, election authorities tightened voting procedures on Monday amid uproar over early voting irregularities.
During Saturday’s special early voting for infected voters, some election workers collected ballots in shopping bags or plastic buckets to place in ballot boxes, and some voters reported receiving papers that had already been used.
Officials said there was no evidence of foul play but the chaos threatened to tarnish South Korea 35-year democratic history of tight and relatively transparent elections.