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Race Too Close to Call in South Korea's 'Election of Unfavorables'

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National Election Commission officials count ballots for the presidential election in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2022.

Voting has ended in South Korea’s bitterly contested and divisive presidential election, with initial exit polls suggesting a race that is too close to call.

As polls closed at 7:30 p.m. local time, a pair of exit polls showed a virtual dead heat between the conservative candidate, ex-prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl, and his left-leaning rival, former provincial governor Lee Jae-myung.

Posters of presidential candidates of Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk Yeol, right, of the main opposition People Power Party are displayed as people wait to cast their early votes for the March 9 presidential election, Seoul, March 4, 2022.
Posters of presidential candidates of Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk Yeol, right, of the main opposition People Power Party are displayed as people wait to cast their early votes for the March 9 presidential election, Seoul, March 4, 2022.

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

The winner will take over the world’s 10th largest economy, and Asia’s fourth largest, during a time of deepening social division and economic challenges.

South Korea faces 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 did not hurt turnout. As of 7:30 p.m. local time, 76.5% of registered voters had cast a ballot.

“I didn’t like the top two candidates. As I watched news coverage, I realized it wasn’t only me who felt this way,” said Mrs. Kang, a 55-year-old voter in Seoul. She voted anyway, saying it did not feel appropriate to stay at home.

Shin So-yeon, a 44-year-old Seoul voter, said she feels there is too much division in Korea. She says she wanted more focus on the economy. “Common people are finding it hard to get by because of COVID-19, so I think this is the biggest problem to solve.”

As of midday, many polling stations in Seoul were not overcrowded. That may be because a record 37% took advantage of early voting.

People wait in line to cast their votes for the presidential election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2022.
People wait in line to cast their votes for the presidential election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2022.

Polls closed at 6 p.m. for regular voters. COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine could 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 Wednesday, the country reported about 340,000 infections — a record.

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.

FILE - 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.
FILE - 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.

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.

Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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