On Wednesday, South Koreans voted for a new president during the 2022 South Korean presidential election, with an outspoken candidate from the governing party and a conservative former prosecutor seen as the frontrunners in a close campaign that has exacerbated local differences.
In pre-election polls, liberal Lee Jae-myung, an ex-governor of South Korea’s most populous Gyeonggi province, and his major conservative competitor, former prosecutor-general Yoon Suk Yeol, were neck and neck, with eleven other candidates trailing.
The victor will assume office in May and will head the world’s tenth-largest economy for a single five-year term.
Mr. Yoon and Mr. Lee ran one of the most acrimonious political campaigns in recent memory.
Both parties recently promised that if they won, they would not conduct politically motivated investigations into the other, but many fear that the losing candidate might still face criminal charges in connection with some of the controversies in which they are involved.
Critics claim that neither candidate has given a clear strategy for reducing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
They also claim that voters are skeptical of both candidates’ handling of foreign affairs in the context of the US-China competition, as well as their plans to address expanding economic disparity and skyrocketing home prices.
“Despite the significance of this year’s [South Korean presidential election], the race has centred too much on negative campaigning,” said Jang Seung-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, adding that neither top contender has put forth a clear plan for governing South Korea.
South Korean presidential election during Covid pandemic
The South Korean presidential election takes place as the country battles a Covid-19 rise fueled by the Omicron version. South Korean health officials recorded 342,446 new viral cases on Wednesday, a new high.
Voters in facemasks waited in long lines at several polling sites after voting opened at 6 a.m., before putting on plastic gloves or using hand sanitizer to cast ballots. After normal polls closed on Wednesday evening, people infected with the coronavirus were to vote.
Out of the country’s 52 million citizens, about 44 million are 18 or older and eligible to vote. During early voting last week, almost 16 million people cast ballots.
When early voting votes were included, turnout was above 60% seven hours into voting on Wednesday, according to the National Election Commission.
Because of the prolonged voting period for Covid patients, South Korean presidential election authorities expect vote tallying to take longer than normal, and the winner may not be known until early Thursday.
South Korean presidential election is a battle between “two evils”
Jeong Eun-yeong, a 48-year-old Seoul resident, said that she was debating whether candidate is “the lesser of two evils” ahead of the South Korean presidential election.
She stated that “nobody around me seems happy about voting” for either Mr Lee or Mr Yoon. “We need a leader who would be really devoted to improving the lives of working-class citizens.”
While both candidates have similar economic and social ideas, they have disagreed on North Korea and other foreign policy concerns.
Mr Lee, who has previously espoused nationalistic sentiments, is pushing for UN sanctions to be lifted in order to resuscitate dormant inter-Korean commercial ventures, and intends to negotiate between Pyongyang and Washington about the North Korean nuclear situation.
Mr Yoon has stated that he will react harshly with North Korean provocations and will work to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with the US and Japan.
Mr Lee added that selecting a side in the conflict between Washington, Seoul’s major military ally, and Beijing, its largest commercial partner, would put South Korea’s security at risk. Mr Yoon wants to make a stronger partnership with the US a top priority.
Mr Yoon alleged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of attempting to sway the outcome of the South Korean presidential election in favor of Mr Lee following North Korea’s last alleged ballistic missile launch on Saturday.
“I would (teach) him some manners and make him come to his senses completely,” he said at a rally outside Seoul.
Mr Lee posted on Facebook that he will work for a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear issues, but that he will not allow any conduct that will inflame tensions.
President Moon Jae-in, Mr Lee’s party colleague, cannot seek re-election since the South Korean constitution restricts a president to a single five-year term.
After conservative President Park Geun-hye was thrown out of office due to a massive corruption scandal, Mr Moon came to power in 2017.
With conservatives in disarray following Ms Park’s demise, Mr Moon’s support rating soared to 83 percent as he pushed for peace with North Korea and an investigation into suspected wrongdoing by previous conservative presidents.
As discussions on North Korea’s nuclear program stalled and his anti-corruption push created issues about impartiality, he finally faced a significant reaction.
Mr Yoon served as Mr Moon’s prosecutor-general before resigning and joining the opposition last year due to internal squabbles over investigations of Mr Moon’s associates. Mr Yoon said that the investigations were objective and principled, but Mr Moon’s supporters claimed that he was attempting to undermine Mr Moon’s prosecution reforms Korea order to boost his own political position.
Mr Yoon’s detractors have also criticized him for lacking expertise in party politics, foreign policy, and other important state matters. He has replied by saying that he will delegate state matters to seasoned authorities.
Mr Lee, a former human rights lawyer who joined local politics in 2005, has built a reputation as a tough-talking anti-elitist who can get things done and repair traditional politics, but his critics accuse him of being a dangerous populist who exploits differences and demonizes opponents.
Mr Yoon has begun a political campaign against Mr Lee, claiming that he was a main role in a fraudulent land development project undertaken in Seongnam when he was mayor. Mr. Lee has made an attempt to connect Mr. Yoon to the controversy. Both of their spouses have apologized in public for different situations.
According to some observers, whomever wins would have a difficult time bridging the conservative-liberal divide.
“Both candidates have failed to create their own, distinctive images because they became absorbed in party allegiances amid partisan animosity, so the race was defined by negative campaigning,” said Shin Yul, a politics professor at Seoul’s Myongji University.
“Whoever wins will be tasked with an important but difficult task of healing the divisions.”