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Lee Jae-myung accepts defeat in close-fought presidential election

Campaign ends in loss for Lee with shouts and tears from fervent supporters

Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea, enters the liberal party`s headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul, on early Thursday morning to officially announce his defeat in the 20th presidential election. (Joint Press Corps)
Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea, enters the liberal party`s headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul, on early Thursday morning to officially announce his defeat in the 20th presidential election. (Joint Press Corps)
Presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea conceded defeat early Thursday, to confirm the victory of his rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party.

Lee said in a speech made at around 3:50 a.m. Thursday at the Democratic Party headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul, that he solemnly accepted the people’s choice.

By 3:37 a.m., 96.22 percent of the ballots were counted, with Lee pulling in 47.79 percent of the total -- 0.81 percentage point behind Yoon.

"I gave it my all but failed to meet expectations," Lee said. "I apologize and sincerely thank the people, members of the presidential election campaign committee, volunteers and party members all of whom have joined me in this journey."

Lee said the defeat was not of the Democratic Party or of the people, saying he was wholly responsible for the disappointing outcome. He asked Yoon to help bridge the apparent divide in South Korea and promote unity and harmony among the people.

"I congratulate President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on his victory," he added. "I beg you to open an age of unity and harmony by overcoming this fissure and divide."

Lee left his home in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, at 2:35 a.m. Thursday to arrive at the liberal party headquarters at 3:23 a.m., where his fervent supporters had gathered, full of anger and tears over the outcome.

Party officials asked Lee’s supporters to leave the press room for the candidate to announce his acceptance of defeat in front of the press, but Lee’s supporters defied the request and argued with party officials and journalists.

These supporters argued they are entitled to stay right where they are to greet the candidate they loved and supported for the past months. The site of the announcement had to be changed to another room in the party headquarters due to the continued dispute.

Many supporters were seen inside and outside of the building, crying over the defeat, and a separate booth was installed outside the headquarters building for Lee to stand before his supporters one last time.

The chaos seen at the Democratic Party's side was probably not something Lee and his supporters expected when the official voting day kicked off at 6 a.m. Thursday.

Most poll results hinted at a neck-and-neck race between Lee and Yoon until the very last moment, which accordingly drove the mood inside the Democratic Party situation room until Lee conceded defeat.

The mood moved from heavenly to hellish for liberal party officials over the course of several hours between the announcement of exit poll results and the confirmation of Yoon’s victory.

Before official voting started at 6 a.m. Wednesday, the liberal Democratic Party of Korea was hopeful, predicting its candidate Lee Jae-myung would win the 20th presidential election by a slight margin.

Rep. Woo Sang-ho, a key official with the liberal party’s presidential election campaign committee, repeatedly told reporters ahead of the official voting day that Lee would prevail over Yoon early Thursday by 1.5 percentage points.
Officials of the Democratic Party of Korea shout for joy at their situation room prepared in Yeouido, western Seoul, upon release of the joint exit poll results from KBS, MBC and SBS at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. (Joint Press Corps)
Officials of the Democratic Party of Korea shout for joy at their situation room prepared in Yeouido, western Seoul, upon release of the joint exit poll results from KBS, MBC and SBS at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. (Joint Press Corps)
And at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when the exit poll results still hinted at a tight race between Lee and Yoon, Democratic Party officials shrieked with joy, with Rep. Song Young-gil, head of the liberal party, even tearing up at finding that Lee seemingly had a solid chance of prevailing.

Democratic Party officials held up their fists and chanted Lee’s name loudly. Some key members of Lee’s campaign team shook hands with one another and smiled with joy, telling reporters that they predicted Lee would win by 1.5 percentage points as Woo anticipated.

And Lee seemed to be on course for a win during the early stages of ballot counting. Most Democratic Party officials left the situation room to grab dinner and were chatting with big smiles on their faces, even while telling reporters that the night is young and votes still have to be counted before they could make any further comments.

Rep. Kang Hoon-sik, another key official with Lee’s campaign team, told reporters upon the release of the exit poll results that the figures seemed to hint that the People Power Party’s campaign strategy of creating a gender divide seems to have failed and that voters seem to have valued Lee’s potential as a candidate who can bring economic recovery and improved livelihoods for the people.

But as vote counting continued into the night, the tide began to turn. Yoon was steadily rising in vote share, while Lee, who started with a big majority in the early moments of ballot counting, was slowly being caught up.

Some Democratic Party officials started returning to the situation room and sat at their seats without a smile. The confidence they had earlier on was nowhere in sight once the gap between Lee and Yoon narrowed to just a few percentage points.

At 12:31 a.m., when about half of the ballots were counted, Yoon edged ahead.
View of the situation room for the Democratic Party of Korea at 12:31 a.m. when Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party edged ahead of Lee Jae-myung of the liberal party when about half of the ballots were counted. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
View of the situation room for the Democratic Party of Korea at 12:31 a.m. when Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party edged ahead of Lee Jae-myung of the liberal party when about half of the ballots were counted. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
The situation room was already quiet, but the air turned cold, and officials were left with no choice but to stare at the monitoring screens on the front stage and hit refresh on their smartphones to get updated election results. They seemed to realized then: The night was not for Lee or them.

While most of the key campaign officials were waiting for Lee to join them at the situation room, Lee notified the press that he would be heading to the party’s main office instead. No exact reason was given for his choice of destination.

By the time he arrived to speak to reporters, all key officials with the Democratic Party had come to join him, giving him a warm round of applause for his efforts shown over the months of intense campaign.

Even after Lee officially conceded, his supporters continued to shout out his name in Yeouido to encourage him. Fury, sadness and tears filled the pre-dawn air at the heart of South Korean politics.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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