South Koreans vote for president in tight, bitter election

People vote for presidential election at a local polling station in Paju, South Korea, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. South Koreans were voting for a new president Wednesday, with an outspoken liberal ruling party candidate and a conservative former prosecutor considered the favorites in a tight race that has aggravated domestic divisions. (Lim Byung-shick/Yonhap via AP)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Koreans were voting for a new president Wednesday, with an outspoken liberal ruling party candidate and a conservative former prosecutor considered the favorites in a tight race that has aggravated domestic divisions.

Pre-election surveys showed liberal Lee Jae-myung, a former governor of South Korea’s most populous Gyeonggi province, and his main conservative challenger, ex-prosecutor general Yoon Suk Yeol, with neck-and-neck support, way 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 conducted one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory. Both recently agreed that if they won they would not conduct politically motivated investigations against the other, but many believe the losing candidate could still face criminal probes over some of the scandals they’re been implicated in.

Critics say neither candidate has presented a clear strategy on how they would ease the threat from North Korea and its nuclear weapons. They also say voters are skeptical about how both would handle international relations amid the U.S.-China rivalry and how they would address widening economic inequality and runaway housing prices.

“Despite the significance of this year’s election, the race has centered too much on negative campaigning,” said Jang Seung-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, adding that neither leading candidate laid out a convincing blueprint on how they would lead South Korea.

The election comes as South Korea has been grappling with an omicron-driven COVID-19 surge. On Wednesday, South Korea’s health authorities reported 342,446 new virus cases, another record high.

After the voting began at 6 a.m., masks-wearing voters waited in long lines at some polling stations before putting on vinyl gloves or using hand sanitizers to cast ballots. People infected with the coronavirus were to vote after regular voting ends Wednesday evening.

About 44 million South Koreans aged 18 or order are eligible to vote, out of the country’s 52 million people. About 16 million cast ballots during early voting last week. Turnout was more than 60% seven hours into voting Wednesday, when including early voting ballots, the National Election Commission said.

Election officials said vote-counting may take longer than usual because of the extended voting time for COVID-19 patients and that the winner may not be clear until early Thursday.

Ahead of the vote, Jeong Eun-yeong, a 48-year-old Seoul resident, said she was agonizing over which candidate is “the lesser of two evils.”

“Nobody around me seems happy about voting” for either Lee or Yoon, she said. “We need a leader who would be really devoted to improving the lives of working-class citizens.”

While both Lee and Yoon share some similar economic and welfare policies, they’ve clashed over North Korea and other foreign policy issues.

Lee, who has often expressed nationalistic views, calls for exemptions to U.N. 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, says he would sternly deal with North Korean provocations and seek to boost trilateral security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo.

On confrontation between Washington, Seoul’s top military ally, and Beijing, its biggest trading partner, Lee says picking a side would pose a greater security threat to South Korea. Yoon wants to place a priority on an enhanced alliance with the United States.

After North Korea’s latest reported ballistic missile launch Saturday, Yoon accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of trying to influence the results of the South Korean election in favor of Lee.

“I would (teach) him some manners and make him come to his senses completely,” Yoon told a rally near Seoul.

Lee wrote on Facebook that he would push for a diplomatic solution to North Korean nuclear tensions but won’t tolerate any act that would raise 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 a reelection. Moon came to power in 2017 after conservative President Park Geun-hye was impeached and ousted from office over a huge corruption scandal.

With conservatives initially in shambles after Park’s fall, Moon’s approval rating at one point hit 83% as he pushed hard to achieve reconciliation with North Korea and delve into alleged corruption by past conservative leaders. He eventually faced strong backlash as talks on North Korea’s nuclear program faltered and his anti-corruption drive raised questions of fairness.

Yoon had been Moon’s prosecutor general but resigned and joined the opposition last year following infighting over probes of Moon’s allies. Yoon said those investigations were objective and principled, but Moon’s supporters said he was trying to thwart Moon’s prosecution reforms and elevate his own political standing.

Yoon’s critics have also attacked him over a lack of experience in party politics, foreign policy and other key state affairs. Yoon has responded he would let experienced officials handle state affairs that require expertise.

Lee, a former human rights lawyer who entered local politics in 2005, has established an image as a tough-speaking, anti-elitist who can get things done and fix establishment politics. But his opponents call him a dangerous populist relying on divisions and demonizing opponents.

Yoon has launched a political offensive on Lee over allegations that Lee is a key figure in a corrupt land development project launched in the city of Seongnam when he was mayor there. Lee has tried to link Yoon to that scandal. Both of their wives have offered public apologies over separate scandals.

Whoever wins will likely struggle to bridge conservative-liberal divisions, some experts say.

“Both candidates have failed to create their own, distinctive images because they became absorbed in party allegiances amid partisan animosity, so the race was defined by negative campaigning,” said Shin Yul, a politics professor at Seoul’s Myongji University. “Whoever wins will be tasked with an important but difficult task of healing the divisions.”

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