In a high-profile race watched as a preview of the presidential contest, Lee Nak-yeon of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea was seen heading for a victory against rival Hwang Kyo-ahn of the main opposition United Future Party, further cementing his position as a presidential candidate.
Exit polls and early returns showed Lee comfortably ahead of Hwang in a constituency of Jongno, Seoul, in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections. His party was also projected to bag more than a majority of the 300-seat National Assembly.
“Humbly, we will wait for the results of the election,” Lee said in response to the projection of him winning by 53-45 by major broadcaster KBS, MBC and SBS which jointly conducted the exit poll.
“We will continue to put our utmost efforts in overcoming this national crisis after this election.”
For Lee and Hwang, at stake in Wednesday’s election was not just a parliamentary seat as a representative of some 134,000 voters in the district.
The two former prime ministers were campaign chiefs of their respective parties -- Lee of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and Hwang of the main opposition United Future Party, and the rival factions’ best shot at winning the presidential election two years away.
In polls on potential presidential candidates, Lee and Hwang stand out as clear favorites -- of liberals in case of Lee, and Hwang for conservatives. Lee has been outpacing Hwang in eight polls since the official start of the two-week campaign period on Feb. 2.
The precinct, often referred to as a “symbolic” political battlefield, has produced three presidents in the past, including late Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak.
Voter turnout in the hotly contested constituency in the election day was the highest in the Seoul metropolitan area with 70.6 percent, surpassing the national average of 66.2 percent.
Veteran politician Lee who appealed to voters by providing a sense of stability, being the nation’s longest-serving prime minister under the liberal Moon Jae-in government.
He called on voters to help him to realize envisioned top-notch politics that works together in the face of crisis with dignity and trust.
“The ruling party should secure sufficient seats for the government and the National Assembly to cooperate in order to overcome national disasters soon and ease the suffering of the people,” Lee said during his last campaign rally on Tuesday.
To some party colleagues, however, Lee has been viewed as a “kingmaker” rather than “king” himself, according to the party officials.
If it is confirmed that he won in the constituency and his party won a landslide in the Seoul metropolitan area, Lee would be able to further solidify his foothold in the liberal party to secure the presidential ticket.
During the campaign period, Lee has acted as the party’s commander-in-chief for the general election. He has been aggressively canvassing nationwide to support other candidates while delivering the party’s key messages to the public in a consistent and calm manner.
Hwang, on the other hand, has been pouring all of his energy into winning the hearts and minds of voters in the Jongno District after public polls showed stronger support for Lee.
Hwang entrusted Kim Jong-in, chief of the party’s election committee, to spearhead the broader election campaign.
The political career of Hwang, who was Park Geun-hye’s prime minister and interim president following Park’s impeachment, will be in peril if he was confirmed to have lost in the election.
He decided to run for the constituency though he could have sought a proportional representation seat after a growing call for resignation of the party leadership for internal reforms.
Then, Hwang pledged to step down if his party fails to gain support from citizens.
Late last year, he staged a dramatic hunger strike in opposition to Moon’s prosecution and electoral reform policies. He has blamed Moon for an economic slowdown and the stalled denuclearization of North Korea. He has been making clear his intention to frame the election as a judgment on President Moon.
“It is very dangerous to give great power to the government that is not afraid of the people,” Hwang said during his last campaign rally on Tuesday.
“If the ruling party wins in this general election and gains power in the legislature, it will take more reckless actions.”
By Park Han-na (firstname.lastname@example.org