South Koreans went to the polls Wednesday, defying the threat of COVID-19 infection to elect a new president who will lead a nation filled with overwhelming challenges for the next five years.
Although the winner was yet to be confirmed due to a mind-bogglingly tight race as The Korea Herald went to press, what’s certain is that the 20th presidential election reflects the high political engagement of Koreans.
There is much at stake as the country needs a leader who can map out the right path to deal with a slew of problems, both internal and external. In a country where the president is given a mandate to wield an outsize influence over almost all layers of society, it is hardly surprising that people here show up with a strong determination to exercise their voting rights.
On one hand, it is encouraging that a record 36.9 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots during the March 4-5 early voting, even though daily cases of COVID-19 continued to shoot up. On the other hand, it is depressing that the National Election Commission mishandled the electoral voting process for voters infected with the coronavirus -- even though the agency had plenty of time to get things right in this unprecedented circumstance.
What‘s worse, the race was marred by continued mudslinging between the two front-runners among the 14 candidates: Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party.
It is a pity that Koreans have been pushed to make a choice between two “unlikables” -- arguably the least popular pair of presidential contenders in decades. Both are mired in a string of scandals that could backfire in the foreseeable future.
During televised debates, Lee and Yoon were passionate about attacking each other, while failing to fully present their vision and specific policies to handle a growing list of serious problems facing the country.
As a result, emotional antipathy deepened between the two camps, leaving little room for supporters of the ruling and the main opposition parties to objectively compare and contrast two vastly different options for the future.
Being trapped in a narrow, unilateral view does not help Korea confront these challenges. But the presidential election revealed that social, political and generational divides along the lines of the two parties are widening further.
Such deep-rooted antagonism can generate thorny problems for the next president, as partnership and cooperation are urgently needed to resolve pressing issues. These include the continued saber-rattling of North Korea, a housing crisis and bleak economic conditions worsened by COVID-19. There are also complex diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan, among other countries, to deal with.
One of the most pressing issues is to rein in the soaring prices of housing and provide enough new homes. During the tenure of President Moon Jae-in, real estate prices as well as related property taxes skyrocketed, wiping out chances for young voters to purchase homes. Numerous policies were introduced and tested out, but the results were disappointing, if not miserable.
Rising energy and consumer prices, coupled with additional risks coming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, threaten to undercut the real income of citizens. Fiscal deficit is rising to a precarious level, while more of the state budget is required to run major welfare programs, including national pension funds.
Despite all the conflicts, scandals and mudslinging, it is hoped that Korean voters’ choice -- after braving a record high of COVID-19 cases -- would lead to a better future for the nation at this critical juncture.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com