South Korea is the first major country to hold a general election in the throes of the COVID-19 crisis. That might turn out to be a boost for the South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The election for all 300 National Assembly seats on Wednesday comes as Moon basks in the glow of global praise for South Korea’s approach to getting one of the world’s worst outbreaks under control without resorting to the most punitive measures.
The day before early voting got under way yesterday, the nation reported 39 new coronavirus cases, the lowest number in seven weeks.
The easing COVID-19 tally has helped Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea rebuild support battered by an economic slowdown, corruption scandals involving presidential aides and resurgent tensions with North Korea.
The turnaround is all the more remarkable because Moon had faced criticism for a lax approach after the epidemic began in neighboring China, having predicted that the virus would be terminated “before long” — only to see cases spike days later.
“It looked like Moon’s party was headed for a complete defeat in the election amid a fragile economic recovery,” said Kim Man-heum, head of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership and the author of several books on Korean politics. “Then came the coronavirus outbreak, which swallowed up all other controversies like a black hole, leaving only the government’s outperformance in the worldwide COVID-19 war visible.”
The vote comes about halfway through Moon’s single, five-year term, a point when an electoral defeat made his predecessor, former president Park Geun-hye, a lame duck and ultimately paved the way for her impeachment and removal.
While a win by the conservative United Future Party could open Moon to similar peril, victory by the Democratic Party would free his hand to set up a successor.
If Moon could win the election without contributing to a subsequent spike in infections, he might also provide a road map for other leaders seeking to navigate a period of unprecedented economic and social upheaval. Places from US states to Singapore have been re-evaluating their political calendars and election practices as surging coronavirus outbreaks consume the public debate and make the democratic exercises of campaigning and voting dangerous.
In South Korea, candidates have campaigned in masks and relied more heavily on video messages to reach voters. Voters are asked to stand at least 1m apart, cover their faces, wear disposable gloves and be ready to submit to temperature checks. Voting booths are subject to frequent disinfection.
The decision to go ahead with voting contrasts with US states that have delayed presidential primaries and France, which suspended some local elections after cases began to multiply.
Singapore has held off on calling an expected vote as it orders people to stay in their homes to avoid spreading the disease.
Poland plans to conduct its May 10 presidential election by mail-in ballot.
The timing of South Korea’s vote appears to be working in Moon’s favor. His focus on mass testing and isolation of the sick to corral coronavirus clusters has been credited with a sharp slowdown in infection increases.
While South Korea once had the second-largest case tally outside China, it was the 17th globally as of Thursday, with just more than 10,000 cases, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg News.
A Gallup Korea poll released last week, before restrictions on publishing poll results took effect on Thursday, showed that the Democratic Party was leading the opposition 41 percent to 23 percent.
Still, the complexity of South Korea’s vote and a history of surprises like Park’s shock defeat in 2016 make predictions difficult.
More than 1,100 candidates from 21 political parties have signed up for 253 constituencies with direct elections. Another 300 candidates are fighting for 47 seats decided by support for the parties.
“The results are often a surprise because opinion polls fail to capture each candidate’s competitiveness,” Kim said.
The coronavirus crisis has loomed large in a closely watched race in central Seoul, a political proving ground that has produced three future presidents and is sometimes called South Korea’s “No. 1 district.”
The contest features two former prime ministers — Lee Nak-yon, of the Democratic Party, and opposition leader Hwang Kyo-ahn — in what could be a preview of the 2022 presidential election.
“Grabbing a victory here is like winning nationwide support,” Hwang said in a written reply to questions. “Only a landslide win would empower us to stop the ruling power’s policies.”
Hwang’s party is pushing to take a tough line with North Korea, scrap Moon’s decision to raise the minimum wage and cut back on regulations on business.
Lee declined to be interviewed.
Beside pushing through a dramatic wage increase, Moon has tightened rules on urban redevelopment to rein in a property bubble and sought to wean the economy away from nuclear energy in favor of hydrogen and solar power.
The Democratic Party is predicting that it would win at least 130 seats, while the United Future Party forecasts that it would take between 110 and 130 seats, according to Yonhap.
However, surveys have shown about one out of five voters are undecided or unwilling to say whom they support. The threat of infection at polling station only adds to the uncertainty.
“It’s highly likely to be an extremely polarized election,” said Park Won-ho, who teaches voting behavior at Seoul National University.
“Only those willing to pay for the cost of a possible infection will come to the polls, which will result in oversampling” of voters on the extreme right and left, Park said.
TARNISHED LEGACY: Woodrow Wilson served as the university’s president before becoming the US’ 28th leader, but his racism was ‘significant and consequential’ Princeton University is removing former US president Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges after trustees concluded that the 28th president’s “racist thinking and policies” made him “an inappropriate namesake.” The Ivy League school’s trustees made the decision on Friday, according to a statement on Saturday. It comes at a time of widespread rethinking of the US’ racial legacy. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, energized by a series of high-profile deaths of black Americans, has resulted in the removal of Confederate monuments, flags and symbols of racism across the US. Deleting Wilson’s name at Princeton
‘FULLY ENCLOSED’: Residents of Anxin County would be confined to their homes and would only be allowed out once a day to buy necessities such as food and medicine China yesterday imposed a strict lockdown on nearly half a million people near the capital to contain a fresh COVID-19 cluster as authorities warned the outbreak was still “severe and complicated.” After China largely brought the virus under control, hundreds have been infected in Beijing and cases have emerged in Hebei Province. Health officials said that Anxin County — about 150km from Beijing — would be “fully enclosed and controlled,” the same strict measures imposed at the height of the pandemic in the city of Wuhan earlier this year. Only one person from each family would be allowed to go out once a
Japan said it opposed changes to the G7 nations as it pushed back against a reform plan by US President Donald Trump that would have rival South Korea this year join in an expanded meeting. Tokyo has told the US it stands against South Korea’s participation on the grounds of differences in policy on China and North Korea, Kyodo News reported this weekend, citing more than one source related to Japanese and US diplomacy. Japan also wants to maintain its status as the only Asian country in the group, the news agency added. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga yesterday told reporters that
The onset of summer has sparked a rise in incidents of “mask rage” in South Korea as more hot and bothered commuters either refuse to wear face coverings or leave parts of their faces exposed. In South Korea, Japan and other countries in East Asia, widespread mask wearing has been cited as one possible explanation for the region’s relative success in bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control. South Korea, one of the first countries outside China to be affected by the virus, flattened the coronavirus curve in April, although it is now struggling with dozens of daily cases, mainly in and around