Election preview: South Korea

Despite the invasion of Ukraine, elections elsewhere are continuing. South Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday to choose a successor to president Moon Jae-in, presidents being constitutionally limited to a single term. Voting is by simple plurality in a single nationwide ballot.

Moon, representing the centre-left Democratic Party, won in 2017 with 41.1% of the vote, a margin of five and a half million votes over his conservative rival, Hong Jun-pyo, who had 24.0%. Centrist Ahn Cheol-soo ran a creditable third with 21.4%. (My report at the time includes more about the history of the system.)

Moon has not had a bad run as president, at least by South Korean standards (his predecessor was impeached and imprisoned for corruption). Relations with the north, in which he formed an unlikely double act with Donald Trump, failed to achieve a breakthrough, but peace has been maintained. The arrival of Covid-19 produced a temporary spike in his approval ratings, contributing to his party’s strong performance in the 2020 legislative election.

Since then, however, both Moon and his party have been taking water, and recent polls have consistently shown the Democrats’ nominee, Lee Jae-myun, who was previously the governor of Gyeonggi province, trailing conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, formerly the country’s chief prosecutor. (The conservatives regularly change their name; this year they are known as People Power.) The margins, however, are close, and Lee is certainly still within range.

He will be hurt, however, by the decision of Ahn, who was polling in the mid- to high single figures, to withdraw from the race and endorse Yoon. That means that the only serious third-party candidate left is the Justice Party’s Sim Sang-jung, who placed fifth last time with 6.2% and is unlikely to improve on that. Lee and Yoon will therefore take the vast bulk of the vote between them, and it’s even possible that one of them will win an actual majority, which has only happened once (in 2012) since the restoration of democracy in the 1980s.

The campaign has been overshadowed (a line that we’re used to writing) by Covid-19: South Korea had come through earlier waves of the pandemic mostly unscathed, but its case numbers have rocketed in the last month. One result has been a big increase in the number of people voting early, but since the early voting only covered two days (last Friday and Saturday) it’s unlikely to show a big difference in voting patterns.

No-one knows what effect the Ukraine war will have; neither major candidate is known for foreign policy expertise, and both have campaigned on domestic themes. South Korea has supported Ukraine in international forums, but Lee has appeared less than forthright in his condemnation of the Russian invasion. Yoon is clearly the more hardline of the two, but with South Korea’s delicate security situation voters do not always see that as an advantage.

Voting closes at 9.30pm Wednesday, eastern Australian time, so results should be available by breakfast time on Thursday.

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