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South Korea election

Five things to know about South Korea's general election

Moon's Democrats lead in polls, but many voters are still undecided

President Moon Jae-in's Democratic Party is leading in opinion polls, but analysts say that although the ruling party is likely to win in the April 15 general election, its margin of victory may be slim.   © AP

SEOUL -- South Koreans will cast their ballots in a general election on Wednesday, choosing the 300 lawmakers who will serve in the National Assembly for the next four years.

President Moon Jae-in's left-leaning Democratic Party leads in the opinion polls, partly due to positive views of his government's handling of the new coronavirus pandemic. But the main conservative opposition, the United Future Party, is looking to narrow the gap by focusing on the weak economy and corruption scandals involving some of Moon's aides.

Here are five things which to know about the election:

Which party is expected to win?

In a Gallup Korea poll last week, 42% of respondents said they supported the DP, while 23% backed the UFP. Around 22% said they supported no party, making it harder to predict the outcome.

Analysts say that although the DP looks likely to win, its margin of victory may be narrow.

"The [ruling party's] lead in the polling data may not translate directly to the proportion of seats won in the legislature, with a recent revision to the election rules adding further complications to the calculations for proportional representation," said Irene Choi, an analyst at Goldman Sachs.

Next week's election will be the first under proportional representation and could allow minor parties to win more seats. South Korean voters also typically prefer a balanced parliament. Four years ago the DP won 123 seats while the Saenuri Party, the predecessor of the UFP, took 122, giving neither an outright majority.

How will the coronavirus pandemic affect the election?

Moon's administration has been praised domestically and internationally for its handling of the outbreak. South Korea has managed to lower its daily number of new infections to around 50 and keep the fatality rate under 2% through steps such as widespread testing, effective quarantine policies and an emphasis on social distancing.

Analysts say the government's management of the pandemic has overshadowed other issues, such as failed economic policies, corruption scandals, and the lack of a breakthrough in talks with North Korea. The UFP, for its part, says that it is the public and health care workers who should get the credit for the deft handling of the pandemic, not the governing party.

To ensure the election is conducted safely, infected patients will be allowed to vote at hospitals, treatment centers or from home. All 14,000 voting stations in South Korea and overseas will be disinfected and equipped with hand sanitizers, and people will have their body temperatures checked. Those with a fever will be directed to special quarantined voting stations.

What does the election mean for Moon?

The election will determine how easy it is for Moon to govern during his final two years in office. South Korean presidents are limited to a single five-year term. If the DP wins, Moon will have a firmer grip on the government, enabling him push harder on issues such as economic redistribution and engagement with North Korea.

"After a likely DP election win, Moon will have a wider path to boost fiscal spending and enhance the social welfare system, but less room to raise the minimum wage or advance corporate sector reforms," said Scott Seaman, Asia director for Eurasia Group. "Relations with the U.S. and China will remain on an even keel, but tensions with Japan will persist."

But if the UFP wins Moon may become a lame duck, as it will become difficult for him to move his key policies forward. Power within the party would then likely shift to the 2022 presidential hopefuls.

Who will emerge as presidential hopefuls?

Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, 67, is leading in opinion polls as Moon's preferred successor. The journalist-turned-politician is credited for his steady management of government during his stint as prime minister. Voters like his sense of humor and he is a good orator.

UFP leader Hwang Kyo-ahn, 62, is loved by conservatives for his good manners and soft-spoken leadership. But the former prosecutor-turned-politician is struggling to broaden his appeal. A devout Christian, he needs to placate Buddhist voters who suspect he is inclined to favor Christian groups.

Can smaller parties make headway under the new voting system?

Changes to the electoral system mean smaller parties can get candidates into parliament if they receive more than 3% of the popular vote in a new proportional representation section. Forty-seven of the 300 seats will be distributed in this way.

A slew of new parties, including a feminist party, a North Korean defector party, and an environmental party are among the 37 groups registered.

The progressive Justice Party hopes to win 10 seats in this election, up from six at present. It is appealing to working-class voters with a pledge to stop layoffs amid the coronavirus outbreak. The People's Party, led by doctor-turned-politician Ahn Cheol-soo, is trying to gain enough seats to act as kingmaker if the vote is split between the two main parties.

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