South Korea legislative election features surprising turnout despite coronavirus

In a surprisingly high turnout, millions of South Korean voters wore masks and moved slowly between lines of tape at polling stations on Wednesday to elect lawmakers in the shadow of the spreading coronavirus.

Over 17 million had voted in person, officials said, despite temperature checks, other precautions

A voter gets her temperature taken at a polling station during the parliamentary election, amid the coronavirus disease pandemic, in Seoul on Wednesday. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

In a surprisingly high turnout, millions of South Korean voters wore masks and moved slowly between lines of tape at polling stations on Wednesday to elect lawmakers in the shadow of the spreading coronavirus.

The election was closely watched around the world as one of the first nationwide votes since the epidemic began. The coronavirus has caused delays in many other political calendars.

The government resisted calls to postpone the parliamentary elections billed as a midterm referendum on President Moon Jae-in, who enters the final two years of his single five-year term grappling with a historic public health crisis that is unleashing massive economic shock.

While South Korea's electorate is deeply divided along ideological and generational lines and regional loyalties, recent surveys showed growing support for Moon and his liberal party, reflecting the public's approval of an aggressive test-and-quarantine program so far credited for lower fatality rates for the coronavirus compared to China, Europe and North America.

Exit polls conducted by TV stations indicated that Moon's Democratic Party and a satellite party it created to win proportional representative seats would comfortably combine for a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly.

"We are going through difficult times, but the coronavirus and politics are two different things," said one voter, Lee Kum.

National Election Commission officials arrive with boxes containing ballots at a ballot counting office amid the parliamentary election in Seoul on Wednesday. South Korean voters wore masks and moved slowly between lines of tape at polling stations to elect lawmakers in the shadow of the spreading coronavirus. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

Another Seoul resident, Chung Eun-young, said she arrived at her polling station just after 6 a.m. to avoid crowds.

"I was worried about the coronavirus," she said. "They checked my temperature and handed me gloves, but it wasn't as bothersome as I thought it would be. … I don't like what we are going through, but I cast my ballot to prevent the wrong candidates from getting elected."

The long lines that snaked around public offices and schools followed record-high participation in early voting held on Friday and Saturday, and defied expectations of low turnout to minimize social contact.

Special voting time for those in quarantine

In an initial count, the National Election Commission said more than 17.2 million people voted Wednesday. Combined with the 11.8 million who cast their ballots during early voting or by mail, the overall turnout was 66.2 per cent, the highest since the 71.9 per cent turnout in a 1992 general election.

Analysts struggled to find explanations for the unexpectedly high turnout. Some simply gave up.

"Sorry, I really don't have any theory for this," said Yul Shin, a professor at Seoul's Myongji University. "When turnouts are high, voters are usually trying to lay down judgment on a government that disappoints them. But the exit polls predict a crushing win for the ruling party."

Wednesday's voting, which comes amid a slowing virus caseload in South Korea, draws a contrast with an upended election cycle in the United States, where some states have pushed back presidential primaries or switched to voting by mail, and where confusion reigned in Wisconsin as late attempts to postpone the vote were denied in court.

To hold the parliamentary elections as scheduled, South Korean officials and health authorities drew up a deliberate set of preventive measures to reduce risks of the virus being transmitted.

Duct tape or stickers marked a metre of physical distancing space from nearby streets to ballot booths. Masked poll workers checked temperatures of arrivals and whisked anyone with a fever or not wearing a mask to separate areas to vote, sanitizing the facilities after they voted. Voters who passed the fever screening got sanitizing gel and disposable plastic gloves before entering booths.

A woman wearing a face mask to help protect against the spread of the new coronavirus casts a vote for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

The government also mapped out a voting process for those quarantined in their homes, a number that ballooned after the country began enforcing two-week quarantines on all arrivals from overseas on April 1.

Officials texted eligible voters in self-quarantine before the vote and about 13,000 affirmed they wanted to participate. Those without fever or respiratory symptoms were given permission to leave their homes from 5:20 p.m. to 7 p.m. so they could cast their ballots after 6 p.m., when polling stations close for other voters.

They were to be escorted or monitored through tracking apps and had to maintain a two-metre distance at polling places, while workers fully dressed in protective suits were to disinfect booths after each of them votes.

Hospitalized patients or those who were then under two-week quarantine were able to vote by mail if they had applied in late March. Around 400 of the mildly ill voted at temporary shelters during last week's early voting.

Moon's presidency not at stake

South Korea has confirmed more than 10,590 coronavirus cases, including 225 deaths, with the number of new infections decreasing in recent weeks. But there's concern about rising cases in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, and worries that crowds at parks and on mass transportation may be a sign of a relaxing of physical distancing.

"Please do exercise your valuable rights by voting, but also refrain from other gatherings or activities that involve multiple people in confined spaces," Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said.

The National Assembly is elected every four years. Voters directly elect 253 district seats, while the remaining 47 go to proportional representatives.

Lee Nak-yon, centre bottom, a former prime minister, is seen among members of the Democratic Party watching television coverage of results from exit polls for the parliamentary election. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

While dozens of parties registered candidates, the elections were seen largely as a two-way race between Moon's ruling Democratic Party and the main conservative opposition United Future Party. Both registered satellite parties in a bid to win more proportional representative seats.

Before the virus began absorbing public attention, Moon saw his support falter over a decaying job market, corruption scandals surrounding key political allies and an ambitious but fragile diplomacy with rival North Korea that's falling apart.

Moon held three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018, but the North in recent months severed virtually all co-operation with the South amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations with the United States. The North has also been dialling up weapons tests and fired a barrage of missiles into the sea on Tuesday.

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