South Korea’s presidential election: what to watch

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South Korea’s presidential election: what to watch

After a campaign of scandals and mudslinging, the country prepares to elect its next president amid widespread voter discontent.

imageElection posters for presidential candidates line up for early voting in Seoul on Friday.
Credit…Wooha Chow for The New York Times

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Seoul: South Koreans are voting to elect their 20th president on Wednesday as the country faces deep concerns about North Korea.

Pre-poll polls have shown two leading candidates – who are ideologically far apart – in an extremely tight race, and a clear winner may not emerge until the night. Let’s know about this important election.

The outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, cannot run again: South Korea’s leader is limited to a five-year term. Since the country’s democratization in the late eighties, the government has regularly changed hands between the two main political forces that differ sharply on key policy issues, such as how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat.

“The key point to watch in this election is whether progressives will step down after five years,” said Heo Jin-jae, a research director at Gallup Korea. “The biggest deciding factor is how voters assess the performance of the Moon administration. Over the past five years, conservatives and progressives have become more distant than ever.”

One of Mr Moon’s signature policy ambitions was to build peace with the North through dialogue and cooperation. During his administration, he served under President Donald J. Broke in historic meetings between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

But those meetings did not lead to an agreement on how to end North Korea’s nuclear program, and critics have accused Mr Moon of wasting precious diplomatic energy in what some call a misguided approach. For their part, conservatives would prefer a more confrontational policy toward North Korea.

There were 14 candidates in the election, which means that the winner is unlikely to get an absolute majority. But according to polls, the race comes down to a contest between Lee Jae-myung of Mr Moon’s Democratic Party and Eun Suk-yol of the conservative opposition People Power Party.

Mr. Lee, 57, began his public career as a human rights lawyer defending the working class. He then became mayor and governor in Gyeonggi-do, a populous province around Seoul, building a reputation by extending social benefits to young, unemployed citizens.

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He has also projected himself as a firebrand who throws no punches against his enemies. He once called past conservative leaders “pro-Japanese, dictatorial, traitorous, people-killing forces”. His fans refer to him as “carbonated cider,” who approve of his pungent delivery.

Credit…Pool Photo by Jung Yeon-jae

Mr. Yoon, 61, is the son of a teacher, who passed the bar in his ninth attempt. He eventually earned a reputation as an anti-corruption prosecutor who did not succumb to political pressure while going after some of the richest and most powerful people in the country. His investigation helped imprison two former presidents as well as the head of Samsung on corruption charges.

Mr. Yoon served as the Prosecutor General under Mr. Moon. His political stock soared after he resigned last year and he began criticizing Mr Moon’s policies on everything from North Korea to housing prices. But he has occasionally made mistakes during TV debates, and some have described him as a political amateur.

Neither Mr. Lee nor Mr. Yoon have extensive foreign policy experience. The fact that the two major parties chose political outsiders as their candidates reflects voter dissatisfaction with the current leadership.

Mr Yoon and Mr Lee have both promised to supply millions of new homes if elected, acknowledging that housing affordability was one of the most pressing problems for South Koreans, especially young voters. But they differ widely in how that and other economic challenges are to be addressed.

Mr. Lee favors a strong New Deal-like approach, which includes expanding welfare and universal basic income, controlling real estate prices, and spurring growth through massive investments in the digital and renewable-energy industries . Mr. Yoon prefers a small government, which promotes market-based solutions and regulation.

Credit…Wooha Chow for The New York Times

North Korea has also loomed large during the election, and the government is on high alert for any new provocations. On Tuesday, a North Korean patrol boat briefly crossed a disputed western maritime boundary, but retreated after the South Korean navy fired warning shots. On Saturday, the North launched a ballistic missile toward the sea from its east coast, its second missile test in a week.

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Mr. Yoon takes a tough stand on North Korea, calls for sanctions and rekindles joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States. Mr. Lee insists on diplomacy that will continue Mr. Moon’s policy of peace and reconciliation.

For young South Koreans whose choices will most likely determine the election, economic uncertainty and inequality are the main issues. Mr Yoon has been accused of inciting anti-feminist sentiments, which are widespread among young male voters. Mr. Lee tried to connect with young female voters, calling Mr. Yoon a “hatred populist” who promoted gender struggles to win votes.

Voter turnout in presidential elections has ranged from 63 percent to 81.8 percent since 1992. Voting experts say this week’s turnout will not be widely different from the 77.2 percent recorded for the last presidential election in 2017.

A record 36.9 per cent of the 4.4 crore eligible voters cast their vote on Friday and Saturday after the National Election Commission allowed early voting across the country.

Credit…Ah Young-joon/The Associated Press

It is South Korea’s first presidential election during the coronavirus pandemic, and comes as the country grapples with a surge of cases linked to the Omicron version. It is mandatory for all voters to wear masks. Officials will check body temperature, spray hand sanitizer and give voters plastic gloves to wear during polling.

Lawmakers agreed to reserve a special time for voters with Covid on election day in February.

By law, the results of an opinion poll conducted within a week of the election cannot be publicized. According to earlier polls, a small majority of South Koreans supported changing the government from progressive to conservative. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Yoon is a clear favorite.

Mr. Yoon and Mr. Lee have been neck and neck in most of the surveys. Throughout most of the campaign, policy discussions often failed due to unsavory allegations of legal and moral misconduct by the two candidates and their families.

Credit…Ah Young-joon/The Associated Press

Mr. Lee’s opponents broadcast audiotapes on YouTube in which the candidate spread a stream of abuses against his sister-in-law. Mr. Yoon’s critics shared photos of him “manspreading” and social media links to audio files, in which his wife said police and prosecutors would chase down journalists who are not friends with him if he becomes president.

In surveys, more people found candidates to disagree than agree. Some voters have called the election “a contest between the impossible”. Voter Hong Cha-yong, 30, who is in the middle of jobs in Seoul, said it bluntly. “Yoon is ignorant. Lee talks a lot but is unreliable,” she said. “This choice is a choice of which is the lesser of two evils.”

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