South Koreans are choosing a new president Tuesday in a special election brought on by the impeachment of ex-President Park Geun-hye.
Voter turnout could be historically high following a tumultuous political period in which revelations of Park’s alleged multi-million dollar influence peddling scheme led to weeks of massive public protests that pressured the National Assembly to force her removal from office and call for a new election.
The National Election Commission has forecast that voter turnout among the 31 million Koreans registered to vote will be over 80 percent, which would be the highest since President Kim Dae-jung was elected in 1997, with 80.7 percent of eligible voters casting ballots.
In the wake of the impeachment, public support for conservative candidates has plummeted. In the latest opinion polls, Liberal Democratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-in led the field of 13 candidates with an approval rating of over 40 percent.
Hwang Eui-soon, who attended the rallies demanding Park’s ouster, said Moon’s support for their cause and calls for anti-corruption reforms influenced him to vote for the Democratic Party candidate.
“I didn't know at that time, but how Mr. Moon played a role as a leader during the protests was very impressive.” Said Hwang after voting at the Hongeun-dong polling station in the north of Seoul.
Many of Moon’s supporters said they like his domestic policy agenda of increasing government spending for jobs and education. But some are also ambivalent about his pro-engagement polices on North Korea, which his conservative opponents have labeled as weak on national security.
“[Some people] said [candidate Moon] is pro-North, but I think we don't need to worry about it,” said Kim Eun-hee after she voted for Moon in Seoul.
Moon’s closest rivals; conservative Liberty Korea Party candidate Hong Joon-pyo and the People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who is also a liberal but casts himself as tougher on defense, were both close to 20 percent in the polls. The other candidates running registered only in the single digits.
Despite the impeachment scandal, many older voters like Lee Bong-ho say they still support the conservative parties due to their strong national security positions that emphasize sanctions, military deterrence and support for the U.S. alliance to restrain the North Korean nuclear threat.
“I've been supporting conservatives, because I consider stability (as a priority). Looking back at previous administrations, conservatives secured stability,” said Lee.
Moon ran against Park in the 2012 presidential election but narrowly lost, in part because she was seen as stronger on national security.
He advocates a two-track policy on North Korea: opening dialogue while maintaining pressure and sanctions to encourage change.
But many liken his approach to the Sunshine Policy Of Engagement initiated in the early 2000s by late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. That attempt to build inter-Korean trust through assistance and cooperative projects eventually ended in the face of the North’s refusal to suspend its nuclear programs and its continued military provocations.
During this presidential campaign, Moon criticized the conservative punitive approach on North Korea for not only failing to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development, but for also allowing it to accelerate with increased ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
Moon said on Tuesday that the next South Korean president should take on a more active diplomatic role in working with both the United States and China to bring North Korea to international talks to resolve the nuclear standoff.
"What's important in this process is that South Korea should lead that new flow of events, - we should not be a sightseer just watching talks between the United States and China," Moon said on a live election day YouTube webcast.
The polls in South Korea close at 8pm local time. In the South Korean election system, whoever wins the most votes among the 13 candidates, even if that total is less than a majority of the electorate, will be the victor.
Because an un-elected acting government was put in place during the impeachment process, the winner of presidential election will be inaugurated immediately on Wednesday, and will move very quickly to name cabinet positions and a new prime minister.
Whoever wins will also have to deal with erupting diplomatic crises: U.S. President Donald Trump’s $1 billion dollar demand for the THAAD missile defense system being deployed on the Korean Peninsula, and China’s economic retaliation against South Korea, limiting tourism and imports, for supporting the THAAD system that Beijing sees as a threatening increase of the U.S. military presence in the region.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.