Exit polls in South Korea have put Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative who supports a tougher stance on North Korea, slightly ahead of his main rival in the race for the presidency, after a campaign overshadowed by personal attacks and the worst coronavirus wave of the pandemic.
Yoon, the People Power party’s candidate, has 48.4% of the vote, according to a joint exit poll by three TV networks, with his Democratic party opponent, Lee Jae-myung, on 47.8%.
But another poll by broadcaster JTBC showed Lee ahead with 48.4%, to Yoon’s 47.7%. With the result still too close to call, the identity of the leader of Asia’s fourth-biggest economy will not be made official until around midnight.
A Yoon victory would end liberal hopes of securing another five years in the presidential Blue House as the successor to Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning former human rights lawyer.
A record 37% of South Korea’s 44 million eligible voters cast early ballots during a two-day period last week, the highest number since the system was introduced in 2013.
The polls closed at 6pm for most people but polling stations remained open for another 90 minutes to enable people with Covid-19 to vote.
In echoes of the 2020 national assembly elections, voters wore masks and used hand sanitiser, casting their ballots on the same day South Korea reported a record 342,446 new Covid-19 cases.
More than a million people are isolating at home after testing positive, health authorities say. The country amended its electoral laws last month to ensure they would be able to vote.
Yoon, who was hoping to benefit from public anger over rising house prices in Seoul, income inequality and youth unemployment, said during the campaign that he would address mounting economic problems with a dose of fiscal conservatism, including a cut in the minimum wage and the removal of limits on working hours.
He vowed to address the housing crisis with tax relief, pledged support for small businesses and self-employed people, and encouraged the private sector to create jobs and build millions of new homes.
Park Ki-tae, a 38-year-old resident of the capital, said after casting his vote: “I’m really worried about housing prices in Seoul and I hope the new president will focus on making people’s lives easier and better.”
While North Korea’s recent return to ballistic missile tests was lowered down the list of voter priorities, Yoon’s team has said he would restart talks with the regime in Pyongyang, while boosting South Korea’s deterrent capabilities.
That could include buying an additional US missile defense system, despite criticism from China that its powerful radar can penetrate its territory. South Korea’s decision to deploy the system, known as Thaad, in 2017 triggered economic retaliation from Beijing.
A longtime member of Moon’s Democratic party, Lee rose to prominence with an aggressive pandemic response, a populist economic agenda, and by touting his outsider image.
Lee has called for an expansionary fiscal policy and universal basic income of 1m won (£600) a year to every individual, as well as cash handouts to all people to soften the financial blow dealt by Covid-19.
The rest of the world will look for signs of a new approach to North Korea under South Korea’s new president, after Moon’s policy of engagement paved the way for summits with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, but made no progress on the key issue of nuclear weapons.
Yoon has said he supports a preemptive strike against North Korea if an attack appears imminent.
Lee has said he would send special envoys to the US, China, Japan and North Korea as soon as he is elected in an attempt to revive negotiations and end the standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Controversially, he has called for exemptions to UN sanctions so that dormant inter-Korean economic projects can be revived.
Having appealed to young male voters who are unhappy about attempts under the Moon to address gender inequality, Yoon could add fuel to the national debate over women’s rights if, as president, he honors a campaign promise to abolish the gender equality ministry.
He has claimed that South Korean women do not suffer from “systemic gender discrimination,” even though the country performs poorly in international comparisons of the gender pay gap and female representation in senior management.
“The widespread support Yoon enjoys from young men is frankly absolutely terrifying from a woman’s point of view,” said Keung Yoon Bae, an academic who voted on Wednesday.
Lee would keep the ministry, but in an apparent sop to anti-feminist voters he has said he would drop the word “women” from its official Korean-language title.
The winner, who like other South Korean presidents can serve only a single five-year term, will take office on 9 May.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism