South Korea votes in presidential election with major inequality concern
South Koreans were at the polls electing a new president on Wednesday with economic inequality a top concern especially among young swing voters, despite the growing clamor of nuclear-armed North Korea.
Polling booths opened at 6 a.m. (2100 GMT) and a record early vote suggests that turnout will be high after a mud-slinger-dominated campaign between liberal Lee Jae-myung and conservative Yoon Seok-yeol.
The equally unpopular couple, whose local media have called it “election junk,” have been choppy in the polls for months. About 90 percent of voters support one or the other.
Analysts say politics in South Korea is particularly antagonistic, as democracy was only restored in 1987 after decades of authoritarian rule.
Presidents serve one five-year term, and every surviving former leader has been jailed for corruption after leaving office.
Yoon has already threatened to investigate outgoing President Moon Jae-in, citing unspecified “irregularities”.
The two parties are ideologically separate, and analysts say the key question is whether voters will expel Moon’s dovish Democratic Party and usher in a new, hard-line, fiscally conservative regime under the opposition People’s Power Party.
“What the country needs now is change,” Hong Seung-cheon, 71, told AFP at a polling station in southern Seoul.
“We cannot go on like this.”
However, younger swing voters are likely to prove decisive, analysts say, and their main concerns are skyrocketing home prices in the capital, Seoul, local inequality and stubborn youth unemployment.
“Young voters are not loyal to any particular political party, and therefore cannot be defined by conservative liberal ideology,” said Shin Yeol, a professor of political science at Myeongji University.
“Iqbal and the choices of those in their twenties will have a huge impact on the outcome,” Shin added.
Both leading candidates have promised to build millions of new homes, although the left-leaning Lee is relying more on public housing and conservative Yun than on market-led solutions to the crisis.
“I am really concerned about housing prices in Seoul and I hope the new president will focus on making people’s lives easier and better,” Park Ki-tae, 38, told AFP.
Polling stations opened at 6 am (2100 GMT) and will close at 6 pm. For 90 minutes after the lockdown, Covid-positive voters will be allowed to cast their ballots.
South Korea is in the grip of the Omicron wave and set a new record with more than 300,000 new cases on Wednesday.
Voters have to wear masks and spray a lot of their hands with sanitizer after casting their vote.
Health authorities say more than a million people are currently self-isolating at home after testing positive. The country revised its electoral laws last month to ensure it could vote.
In a two-day early voting process last week, 37 percent of the 44 million eligible people cast their ballots — the highest number since the system was introduced in 2013.
The new president will also have to contend with an increasingly assertive North Korea, which has embarked on a lightning-gun campaign this year including a launch just days before the election.
On Tuesday, a North Korean patrol boat briefly crossed the de facto sea border, prompting the South Korean Navy to fire warning shots. Pyongyang also tested what Seoul called ballistic missiles on Saturday.
Opposition candidate Yun is more hawkish in North Korea, and has threatened a pre-emptive strike if necessary.
The former attorney general also promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality, saying that women in South Korea do not suffer from “systemic gender discrimination,” despite evidence to the contrary.
Yun made a series of gaffes during the election campaign, including recently in a tweet about Ukraine in which he posted Youssoufi with an angry face in a bizarre reference to the country’s Orange Revolution of 2004.
Critics called the tweet a “tone deaf”.
Lee, a former child factory worker turned politician, offered a slew of new policies from universal basic income to free school uniforms — but his ideas were overshadowed by media coverage of scandals.
The 57-year-old is under pressure over a controversial land development deal in which private investors benefited from a state-funded project during Lee’s tenure as mayor of Seongnam.
He was also forced to start his campaign by apologizing for a profanity-filled phone call with his family involving disagreements with his late brother and mother.
The winner of the election will officially succeed Moon in May. The incumbent remains popular, despite the promised peace agreement with North Korea not being achieved.
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