The race between South Korea’s two leading presidential candidates has seen unprecedented levels of toxic rhetoric, mudslinging and lawsuits.
How bad is it?
“Hitler,” “beast,” and “parasite” are some of the choicer insults leveled by both camps. Some are even calling it “The Squid Game Election,” in reference to Netflix’s megahit survival drama where people are killed if they lose children’s games.
And the stakes? There’s widespread speculation that the loser will be arrested.
“It’s a dreadful presidential election when the losing contender faces prison. Please survive this dogfight in the mire!” senior opposition politician Hong Joon-pyo wrote on Facebook.
According to AP, just days before Wednesday’s election, Lee Jae-myung from the liberal governing Democratic Party and Yoon Suk Yeol from the main conservative opposition People Power Party are locked in an extremely tight race.
Their negative campaigns are aggravating South Korea’s already severe political divide at a time when it faces a battered, pandemic-hit economy, a balancing act over competition between its main ally, Washington, and its top trading partner, China, and a raft of threats and weapons tests from rival North Korea.
Opinion surveys show that both candidates have more critics than supporters.
“Isn’t our national future too bleak with an unpleasant and bitter presidential election that calls for choosing the lesser of two evils?” the mass-circulation Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial.
Yoon has slammed Lee over his possible ties to an allegedly corrupt land development scandal. Lee has denied any connection, and in turn has tried to link Yoon to the same scandal, while separately criticizing him for his reported ties to shamanism — an ancient, indigenous religious belief.
There have also been attacks on the candidates’ wives, both of whom have been forced to apologize over separate scandals.
Yoon described Lee’s party as “Hitler” and “Mussolini” while an associate called Lee’s purported aides “parasites.” Lee’s allies called Yoon “a beast,” “dictator” and “an empty can” and derided his wife’s alleged plastic surgery.
Their campaign teams and supporters have filed dozens of lawsuits charging libel and the spread of false information, among other issues.
“This year’s presidential election has been more overwhelmed by negative campaigning than any other previous election, and the mutual hatred won’t easily die down after the election,” said Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Institute of Presidential Leadership.
Among the fault lines in the electorate are South Korean regional rivalries, views on North Korea, a conflict between generations, economic inequality and women’s rights issues.
Yoon is more popular with older voters and those in the southeastern region of Gyeongsang, where past conservative and authoritarian leaders came from. His supporters typically advocate a stronger military alliance with the United States and a tougher line on North Korea, and they credit past authoritarian rulers for quickly developing the economy after the Korean War.
Lee enjoys greater support from younger people and those from Jeolla province, Gyeongsang’s rival region in the southwest. His supporters generally want an equal footing in relations with the United States and rapprochement with North Korea while being extremely critical of past authoritarian rulers’ human rights records.
In a notable development, many surveys showed Yoon has received greater approval ratings than Lee from voters aged 18 and 29, most of whom were born after South Korea became a developed country.
“They didn’t experience poverty and dictatorships. … They are very critical of China and North Korea, and they have rather friendly feelings toward the U.S. and Japan,” said Park Sung-min, head of Seoul-based MIN Consulting, a political consulting firm.
South Korea’s deep divisions are reflected in the troubles of the last three leaders. Their supporters say intense corruption investigations after they left office were politically motivated by their rivals.