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South Korea Holds ‘Election of the Unfavorables’

Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, raises his hands during a presidential election campaign in Seoul, South Korea, March 8, 2022.

South Koreans are casting votes Wednesday for a new president, wrapping up a campaign marked by high-profile corruption allegations and bitter personal attacks.

The liberal candidate, former provincial Governor Lee Jae-myung, and his conservative rival, ex-prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl, are locked in a tight race ahead of the vote.

FILE - Former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-youl from South Korea's main opposition People Power Party waves after being chosen as the party's candidate in next year's presidential election in Seoul on Nove. 5, 2021.
FILE - Former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-youl from South Korea's main opposition People Power Party waves after being chosen as the party's candidate in next year's presidential election in Seoul on Nove. 5, 2021.

They are vying to replace outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second five-year term.

South Korea faces no shortage of urgent issues, including skyrocketing housing prices, high youth unemployment and a pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

But debate over those issues has been overshadowed by ferocious mudslinging between the two candidates, which many observers say has reached unprecedented levels.

“Unlike in the past, when there was fighting over a cause or for an ideology, this campaign has focused more on personal attacks,” said Kim Min-ha, a political commentator and author. “It is said this is the worst election ever.”

Both candidates are extremely unpopular, opinion polls suggest, leading many media outlets to refer to the race as the “election of the unfavorables.”

But that may not hamper turnout. Two days of early voting this week saw record turnout — already more than 37% of registered voters have cast ballots before election day.

Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time and will close at 6 p.m. for regular voters. COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine can vote from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

A winner is not expected to be declared until early Thursday, since the race is seen as one of the closest in South Korea’s history.

The election comes as South Korea experiences an explosion of coronavirus cases because of the highly transmissible omicron variant. On Tuesday, the country reported more than 200,000 infections — a record. It also reported record numbers of severe and critical cases.

However, South Korea’s COVID-19 death rate remains much lower than in other developed countries. Officials expect cases to peak later this month and have already begun loosening social distancing guidelines in a shift toward living with the virus.

The candidates offer different approaches for handling the economic aspects of the pandemic. Lee prefers a big government approach, promising pandemic cash handouts for all as part of his eventual goal of implementing a system of universal basic income. Yoon favors more targeted economic stimulus packages and warns of excessive national debt.

On foreign policy, Lee vows to continue Moon’s outreach to North Korea and promises a balanced approach to diplomacy that does not antagonize China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner. Yoon advocates a policy of “peace through strength” with North Korea and is more vocally critical of Beijing.

No matter who wins, many analysts predict a large degree of continuity in Seoul’s foreign policy.

“Economic self-interest, a rebarbative North and worsening U.S.-China tensions will set the parameters for whoever next occupies the Blue House,” Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea specialist at Leeds University, wrote on the Chatham House website. “The rhetoric may vary, but the wiggle room is small.”

Cutthroat politics

South Korea has long seen fierce battles between conservatives and liberals. It can often feel like a zero-sum game; every living former president has been convicted of crimes, many after their political rivals took power.

But the stakes feel even higher now, especially for conservatives who are still reeling after their icon, ex-President Park Geun-hye, was impeached in 2017 and convicted on corruption charges. Park, the daughter of longtime military dictator Park Chung-hee, was pardoned late last year by her successor, Moon.

Yoon, the conservative, has threatened to launch investigations of Moon, as well his rival, Lee, if he becomes president. Yoon has also compared his rivals in the ruling party to Hitler and Mussolini.

Meanwhile, Lee, the liberal, faces questions of whether he knew about or was involved in a snowballing real estate corruption scandal during his time as mayor of a town on the outskirts of Seoul. Lee denies any wrongdoing and instead accused Yoon of being involved in the scheme.

Both men also have had their personal lives dragged into the campaign. Yoon has been dogged by accusations he relies on shamanism and superstition. During a television debate, he was forced to deny he met with an unlicensed religious medical practitioner who specializes in anal acupuncture.

At a debate last year, Lee offered to pull down his pants after a rival brought up old allegations of an extramarital affair with a well-known actress who had described what she said was a distinctive mole on the candidate's genitals.