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[Election 2022] S. Koreans to elect new president this week after tight race

This compilation image shows Lee Jae-myung (L), the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, the candidate of the main opposition People Power Party. (Yonhap)
This compilation image shows Lee Jae-myung (L), the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, the candidate of the main opposition People Power Party. (Yonhap)

South Koreans will elect a new president this week, capping off a neck-and-neck race between two leading contenders whose promises of improved livelihoods and a fairer society were largely overshadowed by scandals and feuds.

Wednesday's election has shaped up to be a two-way race between former Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party and former prosecutor-general Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party.

Lee, the liberal candidate, has used his background in public administration to campaign under the slogan of a competent and pragmatic president who will get things done in both the economy and foreign relations.

Meanwhile, Yoon, the conservative candidate, has ridden a wave of public anger at the Moon Jae-in administration to seize on a message of fairness, common sense and principle.

In the polls, the two have long competed within the margin of error at around 40 percent support each.

A potential tiebreaker arrived last Thursday when the third-placed candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party, dropped out of the race to support Yoon.

The impact of that coalition will be difficult to gauge, however, as the law prohibits the release of polls conducted within six days of the election until after voting closes.

Recent polls had shown Ahn posting around 10 percent, followed by Sim Sang-jeung of the minor progressive Justice Party at less than 5 percent.

This year's race saw competing pledges on the economy, foreign relations and social issues, although some of them were accused of being populist ideas.

On real estate policy, which has been cited as one of the biggest failures of the Moon administration, both Lee and Yoon pledged to increase the supply of homes but diverged on remedies for stabilizing home prices.

Lee called for tougher regulations to stop speculative transactions of homes, while Yoon said current property policies ignored "market principles" and regulations had to be eased.

In their responses to the pandemic, both candidates were eager to help small merchants hit by the government's tough virus restrictions but clashed over the size and scope of cash handouts.

Yoon took a hard line on national security issues in the wake of North Korea's renewed missile tests, saying a preemptive strike may be needed to respond to an imminent threat.

He also pledged to deploy additional units of the US THAAD antimissile system in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression.

In contrast, Lee took a more conciliatory approach to North Korea, saying the overriding goal in Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang is to prevent another war on the peninsula.

He called for simultaneously pursuing North Korea's denuclearization and sanctions relief and protested that Yoon's remarks only raised tensions with North Korea and China at the expense of South Korea's economy.

He regarded Russia's invasion of Ukraine in a similar light, saying the crisis was disrupting supply chains and pummeling South Korean stock prices.

Lee later came under fire for suggesting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy "provoked" Russia into attacking his country by announcing plans to join NATO. The candidate responded to criticism by apologizing and unequivocally condemning the invasion.

This year's election was seen by many as the country's worst election because of the high degree of negative campaigning on all sides.

The public's aversion to the candidates ran so high that the race came to be known as the "unlikeable election," creating an unusually large number of swing voters who refused to rally behind any candidate.

On the one hand, Lee was suspected of involvement in a massive corruption case behind the 2015 development of an apartment complex in Seongnam, south of Seoul, during his time as the city's mayor.

His wife, Kim Hye-kyung, was accused of misusing public servants and government credit cards when Lee was governor of Gyeonggi Province.

Yoon faced allegations that he associated closely with shamans and relied on them for advice.

His biggest liability during the campaign was arguably his wife, Kim Keon-hee, who was accused of accepting bribes and manipulating stocks long before he launched his presidential bid.

Late last year, she came under attack for allegedly lying on her resume while applying for jobs at two universities in 2007 and 2013.

More than 44 million people are eligible to vote in this year's election. Voting for overseas South Koreans took place over six days until Feb. 28, while sailors aboard ships cast their ballots from March 1-4.

Early voting took place nationwide on Friday and Saturday.

On Election Day, polls will open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine will be able to vote between 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

South Korea's president is constitutionally limited to a single, five-year term. (Yonhap)

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