South Koreans vote for new parliament after campaign focused on economy, graft

People watch the first sunrise of the new year from a footbridge overlooking the city skyline in Seoul on January 1, 2024. 

Jung Yeon-je | Afp | Getty Images

South Koreans voted to elect a new parliament on Wednesday in a bitterly fought race seen by some analysts as a referendum on President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose popularity has suffered amid a cost-of-living crisis and a spate of political scandals.

Nearly 25 million people, or 56.4% of eligible voters, had cast their ballots as of 2 p.m. (0500 GMT), according to the National Election Commission, including 14 million who had voted before election day.

It marked the highest ever turnout for a parliamentary election at this point, though the numbers were down from the 2022 presidential vote that narrowly brought Yoon to power.

The opposition Democratic Party (DP), which already dominates the 300-member legislature, has accused Yoon and his conservative People Power Party (PPP) of mismanaging the economy and failing to rein in inflation during their time in office.

PPP leader Han Dong-hoon said a big win by the DP, whose leader is facing corruption charges, would create a crisis for the country. He warned against giving the opposition an unprecedented super majority of 200 seats, which would strip Yoon of his veto power.

Opinion polls have been mixed and the two major parties have said dozens of districts are too close to call but some party leaders and political analysts predict DP is likely to win a majority.

Among those voting in the capital Seoul on Wednesday, Park Na-jung, 51, said she backed Yoon’s party to help prevent the opposition from taking too much power, while Kim Ji-yun, 26, said Yoon’s government was on the “wrong path.”

Jung Cheol-min, 40, said he had decided to support a minor party, disappointed by what he felt was big parties focusing on political fights rather than competing on policies.

“I hope the two-party structure will be broken somehow, and politicians will carry out practical policies for ordinary people.”

A liberal splinter party led by former justice minister Cho Kuk has emerged a dark horse, projected to win a dozen seats to become a third-party force that can influence control of the assembly.

Retrospective on Yoon

Yoon, about to enter the third year of his five-year presidential term, is not up for election this time but his ability to pass bills could be hurt by a poor PPP showing.

The president has been suffering from low approval ratings for months, having come to power in 2022 vowing to cut taxes, ease business regulations and expand family support in the world’s fastest ageing society.

Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung said his team needs a clear majority to deliver the message of judgment against Yoon’s failed government and is cautiously confident that it can significantly increase its dominance.

Kookmin University professor Hong Sung-gul said the election will be a retrospective on Yoon’s performance rather than a choice about future policy issues, as well as a measure of how divided society has become politically.

“A major factor here is the judgment that President Yoon Suk Yeol has not been good at making the right decisions politically, and there’s discontent about that,” he said.

Corruption has been a major campaign issue.

Opposition leaders Lee and Cho are both on trial for fraud. First lady Kim Keon Hee has been accused of breaking the law by accepting a Dior bag as gift, while South Korea’s ambassador to Australia resigned following questions about his appointment while he was under a corruption probe.

Polling stations opened at 6 a.m. (2100 GMT Tuesday) and close at 6 p.m. (0900 GMT).

Official results are not expected to be released until the early hours of Thursday, but exits polls are due to be released soon after polls close and recent polls have usually projected results accurately.

While Yoon has made it a top priority to strengthen security alliance with the United States and Japan, foreign policy has not played significantly on campaign trails and little change is expected on the diplomatic front whatever the result.

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