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South Korean conservative candidate wins close-fought, divisive presidential election

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, at a campaign stop in Cheonan, South Korea, on March 3. (Yonhap/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

SEOUL — Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol was elected the next president of South Korea, in the most contested presidential election in the country’s democratic history. The election results announced early Thursday capped off an unpredictable campaign season that saw remarkable turnout despite record covid-19 cases throughout the country.

The victory of Yoon, formerly the country’s top prosecutor, marks a return to power for the conservative People Power Party after five years of Democratic Party rule. He would significantly shift the country’s policies in the face of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s rise — amid South Korea’s growing cultural and economic influence and deepening domestic chasms over income and gender inequality.

Yoon won by less than one percentage point over liberal Lee Jae-myung on Wednesday’s ballot. His single five-year term begins in May.

Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol was elected South Korea's next president on March 10, in one of the country’s most closely fought presidential election. (Video: Reuters)

After Yoon and Lee ran neck and neck throughout the campaign, Yoon received a last-minute endorsement from Ahn Cheol-soo, a minor-party candidate who dropped out of the race last week.

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“I have learned many things through this campaign: What it takes to become the leader of a country, and how to listen to the voice of the people,” Yoon said in a speech after the results were announced. “The competition is now over. Let us all come together, the citizens, on behalf of our country, as one.”

Lee conceded his defeat, thanking his backers and congratulating Yoon, telling his supporters: “I did my best, but I could not live up to your expectations.”

Yoon, 61, is a political novice who rose through the ranks of local and national prosecutor offices and notably helped convict former president Park Geun-hye in her impeachment trial.

As incoming president, he faces steep challenges, including slowing economic growth, soaring housing prices and rising income inequality. The bruising campaign has also shaken voters’ confidence in the incoming president.

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Nearly 37 percent of voters had cast their ballots early — a record number that was partly driven by fears of exposure to the coronavirus on election day.

“This is the closest and most unpredictable presidential election that I have seen in my life,” said Kim Kyeong-gi, 86, who voted early because he was worried about coronavirus exposure. “But since this election is so neck and neck, every vote matters, and I came out to cast mine.”

South Korea reported more than 340,000 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, a record. With the omicron variant spreading rapidly, South Korea took special measures to allow those who are infected or in mandatory quarantine after arriving in South Korea to cast their ballots after the general public voting period concluded at 6 p.m.

In a raucous campaign that was dubbed the “election of the unfavorables” because of nonstop scandals and mudslinging, some observers worried that people would be turned off from voting.

But the campaign had an opposite effect: 77 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the election, keeping pace with the 20-year record set in 2017, at 77 percent of registered voters, when the country picked a new leader after the dramatic impeachment and removal of Park. Wednesday’s election was South Korea’s 20th presidential contest.

The economy and soaring housing prices were the top two issues for voters this election, polls showed. Housing prices rose to an all-time high during the term of outgoing President Moon Jae-in. On Wednesday, several voters said they wanted to make sure there is a change in government because they are disappointed in the president’s record on housing.

Voters were divided on who has the best personal and professional credentials to solve South Korea’s growing inequality, noting the stark difference in the personal backgrounds of the two candidates: Lee worked his way up from being a child laborer, while Yoon is the son of an affluent family and a longtime prosecutor.

Choi Myung-soo, 88 and born and raised in the southeastern city of Busan, said Wednesday that he chose the conservative candidate because the former prosecutor will “get rid of thieves” in the political establishment whom he says have neglected the public’s economic woes.

But others said they wanted to see an experienced politician run the government, as opposed to Yoon, a first-timer who has been criticized for his gaffes on the campaign trail.

“I did worry about whom to support because I am worried about how unaffordable housing has become, which is especially concerning for someone like me because I have a child,” said Park Hyun-jung, 39, who came with her daughter to vote on Wednesday in Seongnam City, where Lee served as mayor.

“But I could not vote for the other candidate because I do not believe he is prepared to govern and live up to his promises,” she said, referring to Yoon.

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Lee Jung-sik, 61, who voted with his family Wednesday, said of Yoon: “He is within the top 1 percent of this country. How can he lead the country in the right way and understand what we are experiencing?”

Voters in their 20s were expected to be a swing bloc because they are less ideologically aligned with the parties than the older generations.

Choi Su-hyeok, 21, who voted for president for the first time, took a selfie in front of an early-voting station to mark the occasion. One of the campaign issues that Choi paid most attention to was defense policy, because he has to serve his mandatory military service soon.

“I saw people complaining that they couldn’t find anyone who deserves a vote, but I’ve been contemplating really hard to make the best possible choice for my country’s president,” he said.