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S. Korea’s election set to be judgment on Moon’s mixed record

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South Koreans are choosing primarily between two imperfect candidates in Wednesday’s presidential election, at a time when the country faces a range of challenges, including a sluggish economy and a rising cost of living.

Over President Moon Jae-in’s five years in power, South Korean real estate prices have risen astronomically, leaving many families unable to purchase homes, while the pandemic wiped out many independent businesses. And despite repeated peace overtures from Seoul, North Korea has continued to develop an increasingly sophisticated range of missiles.

In most polls leading up to the election, Yoon has led Lee by narrow margins. Yoon bolstered his chances at victory less than a week before the vote when he merged campaigns with minor candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who held around 5% to 10% of support in most polls. Ahn formally withdrew his candidacy and said he would support Yoon toward the goal of achieving a change of power.

In seeking the presidency, both candidates have pledged generous state spending to assist the vulnerable class, whose ranks have expanded of late. Along with rising housing prices, especially in the Seoul area, many lost earnings throughout the pandemic. A study released on Thursday by the Korea Institute of Public Administration found 68% of respondents reporting having lost income during the pandemic, in many cases due to fewer working hours.

South Korea has room to expand welfare expenditures but cannot maintain the current pace of stimulus spending, said ChangHwan Kim, a professor at the University of Kansas.

“The Korean government actually only spends about 12% of GDP on welfare, which is much lower than other advanced countries,” Kim told Nikkei.

“But the government can’t continue providing as much money as they did throughout the pandemic. … They must find a more permanent way of redistributing wealth, but politically that won’t be easy,” Kim said.

In a poll released Thursday by Ipsos and the Korea Economic Daily Newspaper, 44% of respondents said Lee is the candidate who would best administer the economy, while 33% chose Yoon.

They are hoping to tap into a widely held desire for change, as analysts say many voters are less interested in the two main candidates’ visions for governance and more keen to move on from the left-leaning Moon administration.

“This is a backward-looking election,” Kang Won-taek, a professor of political science at Seoul National University, told Nikkei Asia.

“The five years of the Moon administration were difficult, so there is a strong feeling of wanting to make change. … Candidates’ pledges are more focused on correcting the mistakes than setting a course for where the country will go in the future,” Kang said.

At his own campaign events, Yoon has said that an administration led by Lee would continue Moon’s ineffective approach to key issues such as the housing market and employment.

Throughout his campaign, Yoon, a former prosecutor with no previous political experience, has been accused of attempting to rally young male voters by appealing to some young men’s dislike of “feminism” and claims that the government has gone out of its way to help young women while doing little for men, who are required to spend roughly two years serving in the military.

Yoon pledged to abolish South Korea’s ministry dedicated to gender issues, and during his campaign has used messaging, including a television advertisement, that depicts young men as suffering unfairly as more women make gains in South Korea, a country with a large gender pay gap and where women are underrepresented in the top ranks of government and business.

At a stop in the industrial city of Pohang, Yoon told a crowd that the state funds the Moon administration has allocated to policies intended to achieve greater gender equality would have been more than enough to eliminate the threat from North Korea.

In Yoon’s favor is his background as a prosecutor, where he oversaw aggressive investigations of power players from both major political camps, earning him a reputation as a man guided by principle instead of group loyalty.

“I think voters are drawn to Yoon with a desire for a change of administration that will bring policy changes, and also with his more reliable character appeal,” Lee Sook-jong, a professor at the Sungkyunkwan University Graduate School of Governance, told Nikkei.

Lee is by far the more experienced politician, having previously served as mayor of a suburb of Seoul and governor of Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital. In both jobs, though some were put off by his outspoken and sometimes brash persona, Lee enjoyed strong approval ratings and gained attention for experimenting with universal basic income.

“In the case of Lee, supportive voters view him as a more experienced leader from his mayorship and governorship. By apologizing for some of the controversial policies of the Moon administration, such as housing policies, he gave the impression of changing course,” professor Lee said.

Instead of policies, many voters will likely be thinking of their own frustration when making their choice on Wednesday and wish to “pass judgment on the Moon administration,” said Kim Jin-seok, a professor in the department of social welfare at Seoul Women’s University.

“After more than two years of the coronavirus pandemic, many voters are just seeking a government that can maintain stability,” Kim told Nikkei.

“The next administration’s first tasks will be to recognize our society’s growing polarization and find ways to actively address it.”

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