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South Korea elects a new leader to combat COVID, rising property prices and inequality

A man holding his child casts his vote at a polling station during the presidential elections in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

On Wednesday, South Koreans went to the polls to elect a new president who will shape Asia’s fourth-largest economy, which is riven by gender and generational divides, square off with a belligerent North Korea, and steer the country’s expanding global standing.

The news: Surprises, scandals, and smears characterised the campaign, but the policy stakes for the country’s 52 million citizens, and whoever they elect as president for the next five years, are high.

  • The winner will confront a slew of issues, including dealing with the aftermath of South Korea’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, rising inequality and property costs, and navigating the increasingly hostile competition between China and the US.
People queue to cast their votes at a polling station during the presidential elections in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

What’s going on: Voters want a leader who can clean up the government and start talks with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions.

  • The race is shaping up to be a two-horse battle between Lee Jae-myung, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, and Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative main opposition People Power Party’s candidate.
  • They are trying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is not eligible to run for re-election due to constitutional restrictions.
  • A victory for the conservative opposition would signal a stunning reversal for a party that was in disarray following President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and dismissal in 2017.
  • Meanwhile, Moon’s liberal Democratic Party is trying to safeguard and advance his agenda, as well as to fend off Yoon’s promises to investigate the outgoing president’s administration for corruption if he is elected.
  • After leaving office, the two presidents before Moon, including Park, were imprisoned. Although Moon has not been accused of any specific misconduct, his administration has been plagued by massive corruption scandals involving high officials.
  • Last week, polls showed Yoon with a modest lead, and he received a last-minute boost when a fellow conservative running a distant third dropped out and threw his support to Yoon.
Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential election candidate of South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party (PPP), gestures during his election campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Facts and figures: In the absence of opinion polls over the past six days, Yoon’s side predicted a 10-percentage-point victory on Monday, while Lee’s camp predicted a 1-2-percentage-point victory.

  • By 1 p.m. on Wednesday, more over 61 percent of the 44 million eligible voters in the country had cast their ballots, according to election officials. This includes a record-breaking turnout in early voting, which began on Friday.
  • Yoon, a former prosecutor general, has promised to battle corruption, promote justice, and level the playing field, all while pursuing a tougher stance against North Korea and a “reset” with China.
  • Lee was the governor of Gyeonggi, South Korea’s most populated province, and rose to prominence as a result of his vigorous coronavirus responses and support for universal basic income.
  • As scandals, mudslinging, and gaffes dominated what was nicknamed the “unlikeable election,” both candidates’ disapproval ratings mirrored their popularity.
  • A key bloc is viewed as young voters who favoured Moon but turned disillusioned due to economic woes and corruption allegations.
  • On Wednesday, South Korea announced a daily high of 342,446 new COVID-19 instances, but the spike has rarely been mentioned in the election debate, except from some discussion of how to recompense residents and businesses.
Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential election candidate of South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party (PPP), attends his election campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

What happened: Election officials tightened voting rules on Monday, after outrage over early vote violations, as more than 1 million COVID patients treated themselves at home.

  • Other poll officials collected votes in shopping bags or plastic buckets to place in ballot boxes during Saturday’s special early voting for infected individuals, and some voters reported receiving ballots that had already been used.
  • Officials said there was no proof of wrongdoing, but the confusion threatened to taint South Korea’s 35-year democratic heritage of close, honest elections.
  • The race has already been hampered by a series of setbacks.
  • On Monday, a man with a hammer assaulted and slightly injured the leader of the Democratic Party when he was campaigning for Lee in a rare episode of violence in a South Korean election.
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