Tectonic shift in S.Korea politics as conservative outsider elected president

South Korea’s new president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol (C) of the main opposition People Power Party gestures to his supporters as he is congratulated outside the party headquarters in Seoul on March 10, 2022. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

SEOUL, March 10 (Reuters) – Conservative South Korean opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol rode to victory in the country’s tight presidential election on a wave of discontent over economic policy, scandals, and gender wars, reshaping the political future of Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

His victory in Wednesday’s bitterly fought election means a remarkable turnaround for the main conservative bloc, now known as the People Power Party, which had been struggling to regroup since the 2017 snap election was held after the impeachment and ouster of then President Park Geun-hye.

Yoon has pledged to stamp out graft, foster justice and create a more level economic playing field, while seeking a “reset” with China and a tougher stance towards reclusive North Korea, which has launched a record number of missiles in recent months.

He faces the challenge of uniting a country of 52 million riven by gender and generational divisions, growing inequality and surging home prices.

“Real estate prices, housing policy, jobs, and tax policies will top his domestic agenda,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based expert with the Center for a New American Security.

He will need to restore public trust in Korea’s institutions and is likely to conduct major “housecleaning” by following through on a campaign pledge to investigate outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s administration for corruption, she added.

Yoon, 60, will replace incumbent Moon, of the centre-left Democratic Party, who is constitutionally limited to a single term that will end in May.

A former prosecutor-general initially appointed by Moon before falling out and gaining notoriety over investigations of top presidential aides, Yoon’s lack of elected political experience was seen as both a liability and an asset.

His campaign was marked by gaffes and controversy but benefited as the race became a referendum on Moon’s economic policies from jobs to housing to wealth inequality.

“I would pay attention to people’s livelihoods, provide warm welfare services to the needy, and make utmost efforts so that our country serves as a proud, responsible member of the international community and the free world,” Yoon said at a victory ceremony with supporters.

The election was one of the closest in recent history and came after an unusually bitter campaign marred by scandals and smears. Both candidates’ disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, mud-slinging and gaffes dominated what was dubbed the “unlikeable election”.

Yoon edged out the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung with 48.6% of the vote to 47.8%, with around 99.8% of the ballots counted as of 5:30 a.m. on Thursday (2030 GMT Wednesday). A formal announcement is expected to be made later on Thursday morning.

The close results, the fact the rival Democratic Party will still control the one-house National Assembly, and his vow to investigate the outgoing administration means Yoon will be hard-pressed to move beyond policy failures and political battles, analysts said.

“After a divided electorate has produced a divided government, Seoul may struggle to pursue policies of reform rather than politics of retribution,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

CONFRONTING CRISIS

Lee’s loss casts doubt on Moon’s legacy, including his signature efforts to engage with North Korea, which have largely been stalled since talks fell apart in 2019.

The new president will likely face an almost immediate crisis with Pyongyang, which appears to be preparing to launch a spy satellite and has suggested it could resume testing of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons for the first time since 2017.

Yoon has vowed to forge even closer ties with the United States – South Korea’s only treaty ally – in the face of increased missile activity by North Korea and competition with China, which is the South’s largest trading partner.

The White House congratulated Yoon, saying President Joe Biden looked forward to working closely with him to bolster the alliance.

“We can expect the alliance to run more smoothly and be in sync for the most part on North Korea, China, and regional and global issues,” said Kim from the Center for a New American Security.

More than 77% of South Korea’s 44 million eligible voters cast ballots to pick their next leader, despite an unprecedented surge in new COVID-19 cases – with a record 342,446 posted on Wednesday.

Yoon said he would work with opposition parties to heal polarised politics and foster unity.

“Our competition is over for now,” he said in an acceptance speech, thanking and consoling Lee and other rivals. “We have to join hands and unite into one for the people and the country.”

At a separate ceremony with supporters, Yoon said he would put top priority on “national unity,” adding all people should be treated equally regardless of their regional, political and socioeconomic differences.

Lee had conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent.

“I did my best, but failed to live up to your expectations,” he told a news conference, blaming his “shortcomings”.

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