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South Korea election

Moon’s Democrats have edge as voting begins in Korean election

Polls put party ahead of opposition conservatives for Wednesday's vote

A patient affected with the coronavirus casts an early ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station set up at a quarantine center in Yongin, South Korea, on Saturday.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- For An Jong-woong, it was an obvious choice to vote for President Moon Jae-in's Democratic Party when he cast an early ballot in South Korea's general election.

"I'm impressed by what this government has done over the past few months since the outbreak, and I'm sure a lot of people agree with me on that," said the 34-year-old office worker who lives in Seoul. "I didn't feel like I could vote against the ruling party, despite some liberal politicians' alleged hypocrisy."

An was part of a record 26% of eligible voters who cast their ballots for the election in early voting last week. Voting began Wednesday at 6 a.m. local time and will end at 6 p.m., followed immediately by exit polls. The final result is expected around midnight.

The high turnout could be attributable to voters seeking to avoid crowds, or, as in An's case, their eagerness to back Moon's left-leaning administration. The government has been praised at home and abroad for taking steps such as mass testing to reduce the coronavirus infection rate now to a couple of dozen a day.

A Realmeter opinion poll released Monday showed 54.5% of respondents approving of Moon's performance, up from 48.7% in early March. Forty-four percent of those who answered a separate Gallup Korea poll published last week said they supported his party, with 23% opting for the main conservative opposition United Future Party, and 18% undecided.

Voters will select lawmakers to fill 300 seats in the legislature, 47 of which are allocated for proportional representatives. The election will be the most significant gauge of public sentiment since Moon took office in May 2017, and will go a long way to determining how much leeway the administration will have in passing laws throughout the remainder of his single, five-year term.

This will be South Korea's first elections with a mixed-member proportional representation system, which is designed to lead to greater representation for minority parties. It will also be the first vote since the legal voting age was lowered to 18.

The Moon administration is currently basking in the glow of the country's effective handling of what was one of the world's largest outbreaks of COVID-19. In late February, South Korea was reporting several hundred new cases of the coronavirus per day, and the situation appeared to be spinning out of control.

In response, the country's public health authorities tested more than half a million people, and locked down cluster infections. South Korea has reported only 217 deaths linked to COVID-19 out of more than 10,500 confirmed cases.

The government has encouraged all citizens to remain indoors and has mandated social distancing measures, such as the closing of parks, bars, sporting venues and other public places, but stemmed the spread of the virus without resorting to an all-out shutdown of the country.

Over the past several weeks, the number of daily new infections has been declining, with only 27 new cases reported on Tuesday.

The ruling Democratic Party is hoping to carry that momentum into Wednesday, and to solidify its control of the legislature. This would allow it to push ahead with its major policy objectives, such as reform of the prosecution and its signature "income-led growth" economic strategy.

"We must decisively win these elections to stabilize the Moon administration, to lay the foundations for reelection and complete our various reform policies," party leader Lee Hae-chan said in a statement ahead of the vote.

Before COVID-19 came to dominate the public conversation, the obstacles facing the ruling party were a lack of progress toward vitalizing the economy and a number of corruption scandals involving Moon administration officials.

In the most prominent case, then-Justice Minister Cho Guk, a law professor, became a target of public anger due to allegations he used academic connections to forge certificates to help his daughter win scholarships. Cho was also accused of real estate speculation, a hot-button issue in South Korea.

Cho eventually resigned, but critics castigated Moon for failing to publicly condemn Cho, inviting accusations that the president had betrayed his avowed principles of fairness and transparency.

Kang Chun-man, a prominent left-wing intellectual and academic, made headlines the week before the election with the publication of a book that contained strong criticism of the Moon administration. "President Moon has not maintained even a minimal standard of morality," Kang wrote.

The opposition United Future Party, has doubled down on the economy as an issue that it hopes will motivate voters to cast ballots against the Moon administration. "The economy is in a dire situation. 'Economic coronavirus' has become a bigger worry," the party wrote in a statement released as early voting started.

The virus appears to have shielded the ruling party from these thorny issues.

"Most observers were relatively confident that continued economic woes would allow opposition conservatives to pick up a few seats, potentially threatening the Democratic Party majority," said Justin Fendos, a professor from Dongseo University in Busan.

"When poor economic data came out, Moon was also quick to accept the blame, shielding his party from criticism when they voted for his policies," Fendos said.

Yun Sol, a worker at a North Korean human rights organization in her mid-20s, said she voted last week for the minor left-wing Justice Party, hoping to spur greater gender equality and transparency in government.

But at the current juncture, with anxiety over COVID-19 having eased somewhat, the salient factor may not be the response to the health aspects of the crisis, but to the resultant economic damage.

"The government has allocated money to easing the economic shock of the coronavirus, but what will be most important is whether people can feel the effect of it," said Shin Yul, a professor of politics at Myungji University in Seoul.

"If people feel the effect, things will go in the ruling party's favor. If they don't, it will work against the ruling party."

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