By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
SEOUL – South Korea’s presidential election was too close to call on Wednesday, exit polls showed, as voting ended in a race that will shape Asia’s fourth-largest economy for the next five years.
Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, with 48.4%, was slightly ahead of liberal Lee Jae-myung, with 47.8%, an exit poll jointly conducted by three major broadcasters showed. Another poll by cable network JTBC showed Lee ahead with 48.4%, to Yoon’s 47.7%.
The unusually bitter election campaign was marred by scandals and smears, but the policy stakes are high for the country of 52 million.
Around 77% of the country’s 44 million eligible voters cast ballots to pick the leader of a nation whose global status is rising but has been riven by gender and generational divisions and faces a confrontational North Korea.
The winner must tackle challenges including South Korea’s worst wave of COVID-19 infections, growing inequality and surging home prices, while navigating an increasingly tense rivalry between China and the United States.
Voters also want the new president to root out graft and pursue negotiations to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Lee, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party, are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.
The exit polls suggested Lee had performed better than expected. Surveys last week had given Yoon the edge after he secured the support of a fellow conservative who had been trailing a distant third and then quit the race.
LEESURPRISES IN SEOUL
Lee was seen garnering more votes than expected in Seoul, home to some 8.3 million voters, winning 45.4% in the joint exit poll compared with Yoon’s 50.9%. Earlier polls had given Yoon a lead of up to 10% in the capital.
Cheers and applause erupted at the Democrats’ office when the exit polls were released. Party leader Song Young-gil, who wore a bandage after being assaulted at a rally this week by a man with a hammer, was seen shedding tears.
A nationwide win by the conservative opposition would represent a remarkable turnaround for a party that was in disarray after the last election in 2017, held early after the impeachment and dismissal of President Park Geun-hye.
Moon’s liberal Democratic Party is fighting to protect and continue his agenda, and also to head off threats by Yoon to investigate the outgoing administration for graft if elected.
The two presidents before Moon, including Park, were imprisoned after they left office. Moon faces no specific allegations of wrongdoing, but some of his closest aides were engulfed in corruption scandals.
A former prosecutor general, Yoon has vowed to fight corruption, foster justice and create a more level playing field, while seeking a harder line toward North Korea and a “reset” with China.
Lee was governor of the most populous province of Gyeonggi and shot to fame with his aggressive coronavirus responses and advocacy of a universal basic income.
Both candidates’ disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, mud-slinging and gaffes dominated what was dubbed the “unlikeable election”.
Young voters who backed Moon but became disillusioned over economic woes and the scandals are seen as a key bloc.
“As current problems for young people concerning employment and housing prices are serious, I voted for a candidate who made a pledge to come up with solutions,” said Lee Sung-jin, 33, as he cast his vote in Seoul. He did not say whom he backed.
South Korea is facing a surge in new COVID-19 cases – with a record 342,446 reported on Wednesday – but the issue has not registered much in the campaign.