Pre-election polls showed that Lee Jae-myung (liberal) was a former governor in South Korea's Gyeonggi Province. His main conservative opponent, Yoon Suk Yeol (ex-prosecutor general), had neck-and-neck support. This is way ahead of the other 10 candidates. The winner will be elected in May to the office of leader of the 10th largest economy in the world and will serve a five-year term.
Lee and Yoon ran one of the most bitter political campaigns I've ever seen. They both agreed to not pursue politically motivated investigations against each other if they win, but many suspect that the losing candidate could still be subject to criminal investigation for some of the scandals in which they were implicated.
Critics claim that neither candidate has offered a clear strategy to ease the threat from North Korea or its nuclear weapons. They claim voters are also skeptical about the candidates' plans for international relations in light of U.S.-China rivalry, and how they would address growing economic inequality and high housing prices.
Jang Seung Jin, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said that despite the importance of the election, the race had centered too heavily on negative campaigning. He also stated that neither the leading candidate offered a clear blueprint for how South Korea would be led.
This election is coming as South Korea struggles with an omicron-driven COVID-19 increase. Wednesday's report by South Korea's health officials was another record. It reported 342,446 new viruses cases.
Mask-wearing voters had to wait in long lines at several polling stations after the voting started at 6 a.m. Before they could put on vinyl gloves or use hand sanitizers, they cast their ballots. After regular voting ended Wednesday evening, coronavirus-infected voters were allowed to vote.
Out of 52 million South Koreans, 44 million are 18-year-olds or above and can vote. Last week, 16 million voters cast their ballots in early voting. According to the website of National Election Commission, 8.2 percent turned out for Wednesday's vote. This was just 3 1/2 hours after the voting started.
Jeong Eunyeong, a Seoul resident aged 48, stated that she was pondering which candidate is the "lesser of two evils" in advance of the vote.
She said that "nobody around me seems happy to vote" for Yoon or Lee. "We need a leader who is truly committed to improving the lives and well-being of working-class people."
Although Yoon and Lee share similar economic and welfare policies they have clashed over North Korea's foreign policy issues.
Lee, who is known for his nationalistic views, wants U.N. sanctions to be exempted so that inter-Korean economic projects can resume. He also hopes to mediate with Washington and Pyongyang over the North Korean nuclear crisis. Yoon says that he will sternly address North Korean provocations, and work to strengthen trilateral security cooperation between Washington and Tokyo.
Lee believes that a confrontation between Washington, Seoul’s most powerful military ally and Beijing, South Korea’s largest trading partner, would be a greater security risk. Yoon would like to make it a priority to strengthen the alliance with the United States.
Yoon accused Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, of trying to influence South Korea's election results in favor of Lee after North Korea's latest ballistic missile launch on Saturday.
Yoon said, "I would (teach him) some manners and make his senses fully," at a rally in Seoul.
Lee posted on Facebook that he would advocate for a diplomatic solution to North Korean nuke tensions, but that he won't accept any act that could cause animosity.
South Korea's constitution restricts a president to a five-year term. President Moon Jaein, Lee's party colleague cannot run for reelection. After President Park Geun Hye, a conservative politician, was impeached for a massive corruption scandal and removed from office in 2017, Moon took power.
After Park's death, conservatives were in turmoil and Moon's approval rating reached 83%. He worked hard to reconcile with North Korea and investigate past corruption allegations. As talks about North Korea's nuclear program failed and as a result of his anti-corruption campaign, he faced strong opposition.
Yoon was Moon's prosecutor-general, but he resigned last year and joined the opposition after infighting over probes into Moon's allies. Yoon claimed that these investigations were objectively and principled. Moon's supporters, however, said Yoon was trying to stop Moon's prosecution reforms.
Yoon's critics also criticized him for not having enough experience in foreign policy or party politics. Yoon said he would allow experienced officials to handle state affairs that require expertise.
Lee is a former human right lawyer and has entered local politics in 2005. He has built a reputation as an anti-elitist, tough-speaking politician who can fix established politics. His opponents see him as a dangerous populist who relies on divisions and demonizing his opponents.
Yoon launched a political attack on Lee in response to allegations that Lee was a key figure in corrupt land development projects in Seongnam, when Yoon was mayor. Lee tried to tie Yoon to this scandal. Each of their wives has publicly apologized for separate scandals.
Experts say that whoever wins, it will be difficult to reconcile conservative-liberal divides.
Shin Yul, a political professor at Seoul's Myongji University, stated that both candidates failed to create distinctive images. "Both candidates became absorbed in party loyalty amid partisan animosity so the race was defined through negative campaigning." "Whoever wins will have to address the difficult but important task of healing divisions.