By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KIM TONG-HYUNG – Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Koreans were voting for a new president on Wednesday, with a candidate from the ruling Liberal Party and a former conservative prosecutor considered frontrunners in a tight race that has deepened national divisions.
Pre-election polls showed liberal Lee Jae-myung, former governor of South Korea’s most populous province of Gyeonggi, and his main conservative opponent, former attorney general Yoon Suk Yeol, with neck and neck support, well ahead of 10 other contenders. The winner will take office in May and serve a single five-year term as leader of the world’s 10th largest economy.
Lee and Yoon waged one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory. Both recently agreed that if they win they will not carry out politically motivated investigations against the other, but many believe the losing candidate could still face criminal investigations into some of the scandals in which they are involved. .
Critics say neither candidate has presented a clear strategy on how to mitigate the threat from North Korea and its nuclear weapons. They also say voters are skeptical about how the two would handle international relations amid the U.S.-China rivalry and how they would tackle worsening economic inequality and runaway housing prices.
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“Despite the significance of this year’s election, the race has focused too much on negative campaigning,” said Jang Seung-Jin, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, adding that none of the leading candidates had presented a compelling plan for how he would lead South Korea. .
The election comes as South Korea grapples with an omicron-induced COVID-19 surge. On Wednesday, South Korean health authorities reported 342,446 new cases of the virus, another record.
After voting began at 6 a.m., voters wearing masks lined up at some polling stations before donning vinyl gloves or using hand sanitizers to vote. Those infected with the coronavirus were due to vote after regular voting ended on Wednesday evening.
About 44 million South Koreans aged 18 or older are eligible to vote, out of the country’s 52 million population. Around 16 million votes were cast in early voting last week. Turnout was over 60% seven hours after voting began on Wednesday, including early ballots, the National Electoral Commission said.
Election officials said vote counting may take longer than usual due to extended voting times for COVID-19 patients and the winner may not be clear until Thursday morning.
Ahead of the vote, Jeong Eun-yeong, a 48-year-old Seoul resident, said she wondered which candidate was “the lesser of two evils.”
“No one around me seems happy to vote” for Lee or Yoon, she said. “We need a leader who would be truly dedicated to improving the lives of working class citizens.”
Although Lee and Yoon share similar economic and social policies, they have clashed over North Korea and other foreign policy issues.
Lee, who has often expressed nationalist views, is seeking exemptions from UN sanctions so that dormant inter-Korean economic projects can be revived, and hopes to mediate between Pyongyang and Washington over the North Korean nuclear crisis. Yoon, for his part, said he would deal harshly with North Korean provocations and seek to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo.
Regarding the confrontation between Washington, Seoul’s main military ally, and Beijing, its biggest trading partner, Lee said choosing sides would pose a greater threat to South Korea’s security. Yoon wants to prioritize a stronger alliance with the United States.
Following North Korea’s latest reported ballistic missile launch on Saturday, Yoon accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of trying to sway South Korea’s election results in Lee’s favor.
“I would (teach) him manners and bring him back to his senses completely,” Yoon said at a rally near Seoul.
Lee wrote on Facebook that he would push for a diplomatic solution to North Korean nuclear tensions but would not tolerate any action that raised animosity.
South Korea’s constitution limits a president to a single five-year term, so Lee’s party colleague, President Moon Jae-in, cannot seek re-election. Moon came to power in 2017 after conservative President Park Geun-hye was impeached and ousted from office following a huge corruption scandal.
While the conservatives were initially in shambles after Park’s fall, Moon’s approval rating at one point reached 83% as he pushed hard to achieve reconciliation with North Korea and immerse himself in the alleged corruption of former Conservative leaders. He eventually faced a strong backlash as talks over North Korea’s nuclear program collapsed and his anti-corruption campaign raised fairness issues.
Yoon had served as Moon’s attorney general but resigned and joined the opposition last year following infighting over investigations into Moon’s allies. Yoon said the investigations were objective and principled, but Moon supporters said he was trying to thwart Moon’s prosecution reforms and elevate his own political position.
Yoon’s critics have also attacked him for his lack of experience in party politics, foreign policy and other key state affairs. Yoon replied that he would let experienced officials handle state affairs that require expertise.
Lee, a former human rights lawyer who entered local politics in 2005, has carved out an image of a tough-voiced anti-elitist who can get things done and fix the politics of the establishment. But his opponents call him a dangerous populist who relies on divisions and demonizes opponents.
Yoon launched a political offensive against Lee following allegations that Lee was a key figure in a corrupt land development project started in Seongnam City when he was mayor there. Lee attempted to link Yoon to this scandal. Both of their wives have issued public apologies for separate scandals.
Whoever wins will likely struggle to bridge conservative-liberal divides, some experts say.
“Both candidates failed to create their own distinctive images because they were absorbed by partisan allegiances amid partisan animosity, so the race was defined by negative campaigning,” said Shin Yul, professor of politics at Myongji University in Seoul. “Whoever wins will be tasked with an important but difficult task of healing divisions.”
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