SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Koreans stood in socially distanced lines, disinfected their hands, and wore face masks and gloves inside polling stations as they participated in one of the world's first major elections of the coronavirus era.
Having already rapidly slowed the spread of the coronavirus, South Korea is implementing wide-ranging measures to ensure Wednesday’s parliamentary vote does not lead to a resurgence of the disease.
Standing one meter apart, voters began lining up at 6:00 a.m. local time at polling stations, which were disinfected ahead of the election. Poll workers provided a squirt of hand sanitizer and disposable plastic gloves, while checking voter temperatures with contact-free thermometers. Those with symptoms voted at separate booths.
Voters in quarantine or self-isolation will be allowed to cast ballots after regular voting ends later in the day.
South Korea’s experience could be instructive for other countries planning elections during a time of social distancing. Experts have warned that bringing millions of voters to the same locations could allow the disease to spread rapidly.
Postponing: not an option
Some other countries where the virus has not been contained already have delayed elections.
But postponing the vote was out of the question for South Korea, said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group.
“South Koreans have trauma from two authoritarian regimes between 1963-1988, so elections are particularly essential to their democracy,” she said. “Not even the Korean War stopped them from voting in the 1952 presidential race.”
Referendum on Moon
Wednesday's vote effectively serves as a midterm referendum on South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon’s political fortunes have rebounded after he oversaw one of the world’s most effective coronavirus responses.
South Korea was initially one of the countries hardest hit by the virus. But it quickly became a global model for coronavirus containment, after the government implemented a mass campaign of testing, data-driven investigations of infection paths, and effective treatment and isolation of those exposed to the virus.
The number of new daily infections in South Korea has recently slowed to about 30, and officials in Seoul are now considering how to begin reopening the economy.
Amid the pandemic, Moon’s approval rating has surged above 50% – putting him in an unusually comfortable position for a South Korean president entering the second half of his single, five-year term in office.
The coronavirus has largely overshadowed other issues plaguing Moon, including a sluggish economy, a corruption controversy involving his now-resigned justice minister, and an inability to advance talks with North Korea.
North Korea: not a big factor
In a reminder of how Moon’s outreach to Pyongyang has failed, North Korea launched a series of short-range missiles Tuesday, just a day ahead of the South Korean vote.
North Korea often conducts military provocations ahead of South Korean elections –ostensibly to influence the vote or pressure the government in Seoul.
“This cycle, there has been less debate in Seoul about relations with Pyongyang because COVID-19 has taken up so much political bandwidth,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The Kim regime, however, will not be ignored and may even be a bit annoyed about South Koreans practicing their democracy on [North Korean founder] Kim Il Sung’s birthday,” which also is on Wednesday, Easley added.
North Korea has conducted five rounds of short-range missile tests this year, after conducting 13 rounds last year. The launches have received relatively little media coverage in South Korea, meaning they may not affect the vote.
There are concerns the pandemic may persuade many of South Korea’s 44 million eligible voters to stay home.
Some of those concerns were allayed after the country saw a record number of early voters cast ballots last week – a factor that could prevent overcrowding on election day.
But some problems couldn’t be fixed. Only about half of eligible South Korean voters living in foreign countries were able to vote, because of coronavirus-related lockdowns overseas.
Additionally, COVID-19 patients being treated at hospitals or other facilities were able to vote by mail only if they applied during a five-day period in late March.
Despite those challenges, South Korea moved ahead with the election – setting an example for other countries that will try to preserve democracy, as well as voter health in future elections.
"If we had postponed the election, we would have to fight COVID-19 without a legitimate government, which is far more dangerous than infection from voting booths,” said Lee Sang-sin, a research fellow who focuses on political science and public opinion at the Korean Institute for National Unification. “The best cure for the COVID-19 is, so far as we know, competent and responsive leadership.”
"So, it is not that South Korea is holding an election in spite of the virus,” he says. “We need an election to fight the disease now more than ever. Democracy is not a luxury. It is essential."