South Koreans head to polls despite global pandemic

Country's relatively quick and effective handling of the epidemic has been a boon for the left-leaning President Moon Jae-in

Temperature checks on voters, separate booths for those with fevers, and special polling times for the quarantined: South Koreans headed to the polls Wednesday with a big turnout expected despite the coronavirus threat. The country is among the first ones with a major virus outbreak to hold a national election since the global pandemic began, and a raft of safety measures were in place around the ballot, as well as affecting the campaigns.

The parliamentary poll - widely expected to bolster the ruling Democratic party's position - kicked off at 6:00 am (2100 GMT Tuesday) with 43.9 million voters eligible to cast ballots. Voters in obligatory masks lined up at least one metre (three feet) apart outside polling stations and had their temperatures checked before being allowed in. All had to clean their hands with sanitiser and don plastic gloves, while those with fevers cast their ballots in separate booths that were disinfected after each use.

"It is done very well," said 80-year-old voter Kim Gwang-woo. "Because of the coronavirus, people are keeping their distance and everyone is wearing gloves."

Meanwhile, those self-quarantining at home will be allowed to vote immediately after the polls' 6:00 pm close, as long as they do not show virus symptoms, and must return to their residences by 7:00 pm. Special polling stations were set up at eight central quarantine facilities at the weekend to enable the confined to vote. But anyone who is staying at home and has developed symptoms is effectively disenfranchised.

According to a survey conducted by Gallup Korea last week, 27% of respondents were reluctant to vote due to the epidemic. Yet, the other 72% said they were not worried, and a high turnout is expected after 11.7 million people, including President Moon Jae-in, voted early over the weekend.

South Korea was among the first countries to be hit by the disease outside China, where the coronavirus first emerged. For a time, the country had the world's second-largest outbreak, before it was largely brought under control through widespread testing and a contact-tracing drive, along with widely observed social distancing.

Thus it is no surprise that campaigning was also affected by the outbreak: instead of the traditional handshakes and distributing of name cards, candidates kept their distance from citizens, bowing and offering an occasional fist bump. Many turned to online media such as YouTube and Instagram to connect with voters, while some even volunteered to disinfect parts of their constituencies.

As a result, South Korea's relatively quick and effective handling of the epidemic has been a boon for the left-leaning Moon ahead of the vote, largely seen as a referendum on his performance. On Wednesday the country announced 27 new virus cases - the seventh consecutive day with fewer than 40. Overall, the country has had nearly 11,000 infections and 225 deaths. And Moon's approval rating has jumped from 41% in late January, when he was assailed by critics over sluggish economic growth and his dovish approach to North Korea, to 57% last week, according to Gallup polls.

"At first, the coronavirus outbreak worked against the government", said Hahn Kyu-sup, a communications professor at Seoul National University, "but now with the virus spreading to other countries and South Korea receiving a relatively good evaluation in comparison, the epidemic has become an advantage."

Moon's position is not at issue as he is directly elected, but while his Democratic party is the largest in parliament it does not hold a majority, relying on minority support to pass legislation. South Korea bans opinion polls in the week before an election, but the last available gave the Democratic party 44% support, a huge lead over the main conservative opposition United Future Party, on 23%.

The country uses a mix of first-past-the-post constituencies and proportional representation, and some high school students were voting for the first time after Seoul lowered the age limit from 19 to 18.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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