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Politics

Elections in the time of coronavirus: South Koreans judge Moon

April's contest for the National Assembly will determine whether president is a lame duck

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, meets with the cabinet in protective gear. The coronavirus will inhibit many aspects of campaigning for the upcoming election.   © AP

SEOUL -- South Korea's candidates for seats in the National Assembly began registering for the April 15 election on Thursday, a vote that is seen passing judgment on President Moon Jae-in's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The results will determine whether Moon spends his remaining two years in office in a position of strength or as a lame duck. 

Moon's Democratic Party and the leading opposition United Future Party both aim to win a majority of the National Assembly's 300 seats in South Korea's first election for the body since 2016. The center-left Democrats currently hold 121 seats, meaning they require cooperation from other parties and independents to pass legislation.

The progressive ruling party centers its campaign on Moon's policy successes, like the reform of South Korea's powerful prosecutors' office, while fielding close Moon aides in key districts.

"Voters are most concerned about government support and employment amid the coronavirus outbreak," one Democratic candidate said. The party's platform includes bolstering public health agencies and creating a research institute to develop a vaccine.

Moon has been quick to address the public's concern over the coronavirus. The president decided Saturday to return 30% of the salaries for himself and his ministers during the next four months. Moon then announced a 100 trillion won ($82.1 billion) economic rescue package Tuesday, a follow-up to a 16 trillion won plan unveiled at the end of February.

The Democratic Party leads the United Future Party by more than 10 percentage points in various public opinion polls.

United Future is focused on the next presidential election in two years. The opposition group was created through a merger of three conservative parties in February, and was endorsed by former President Park Geun-hye, who is in prison over the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that led to her impeachment.

United Future is targeting Moon's shortcomings in preventing the coronavirus from entering the country. Its platform includes a blanket entry ban for Chinese citizens. The party also supports a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that the Moon administration tried to scrap.

Lee Nak-yon, who previously served as prime minister under South Korean President Moon Jae-in, files March 26 as a candidate for next month's parliamentary election. (Photo by Yosuke Onchi)

A slew of other parties are sprouting as well, due to a change in the election system that guarantees a proportional representation seat to any party that wins 3% or more of the total vote. More than 40 are expected to appear on the ballot -- including newly created parties from religious groups and women's rights organizations -- double the number from 2016.

A trial ballot created by regional election commissions ended up more than 60 cm long. But the race ultimately will come down to the two main parties.

The outbreak had prompted a push to postpone the election. South Korean law allows the president to delay a vote in case of a "natural disaster or terrestrial upheaval." But with the current term for legislators expiring May 29, Moon likely saw little room for a postponement.

It is unclear how the election will play out, with South Koreans encouraged to stay home and banned from gathering in large groups. The restrictions preclude traditional campaign tools like stump speeches and meet-and-greets. Newer, lesser-known candidates are expected to be at a disadvantage.

Voter turnout could sink if the risk of infection keeps the public away from polling stations. Some predict that United Future will be hurt by lower turnout from independents and the elderly, while the Democrats will be able to count on organized votes from labor unions and the like. But Moon would take criticism if the campaign triggers another spike in infections.

The National Election Commission said Thursday that it will suspend processing absentee ballots until April 6 at its embassies and consulates in 17 countries, including Italy and the U.S. This could stop some of the 18,000 South Koreans overseas from voting.

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