A close one in South Korea

South Korea’s presidential election on Wednesday (see preview here) turned out to be the closest in its history. Centre-right candidate Yoon Suk-yeol beat his centre-left rival Lee Jae-myung with 48.6% to 47.8%, a margin of just under a quarter of a million votes.

Ten minor candidates shared the remainder, with only the Justice Party’s Sim Sang-jung (2.4%) picking up more than one per cent. (Full results are here, albeit only in Korean.) Turnout was a very healthy 77.1%, almost unchanged from 2017 despite the recent surge of Covid-19.

We’ve been saying for two years that the pandemic seemed to be mostly working to the advantage of incumbents. This year’s question is whether the war in Ukraine will work the same way, or whether it will have more partisan political effects.

It would be unwise to generalise from one example in any case, but for what it’s worth this election doesn’t seem to tell us much. The centre-right took the presidency from the centre-left, but Yoon won by less than the polls had indicated – in recent weeks he had led by about five points.

Perhaps he lost ground for being seen as soft on Russia? Or perhaps he won because the right was seen as more pro-military? It’s impossible to tell whether the war will push voters towards hard-line realists, or towards idealists who reaffirm faith in democracy, or somewhere else entirely. But with several important elections being held in the next month or two, it won’t take long to accumulate more data.

We do know that neither candidate in South Korea had strong approval, and voters were mostly choosing the lesser evil – although the turnout suggests that they still took that task seriously. But whatever the reason, Yoon will now get his chance. He will be sworn in to replace incumbent Moon Jae-in in two months’ time.

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