South Korean ruling party wins vote held amid virus fears

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) — The ruling liberal party secured a resounding victory in South Korea’s Parliamentary elections, which had the highest turnout in nearly three decades despite the coronavirus pandemic forcing social distancing at polling places.

The ruling Democratic Party and a satellite party it created to win proportional representative seats combined to win 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, election officials said as they completed vote-counting yesterday.

Meanwhile, conservatives suffered their worst showing in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area in years. The comfortable majority will likely embolden President Moon Jae-in’s government to pursue its key domestic and foreign objectives, such as reviving diplomacy with nuclear-armed rival North Korea, while it grapples with a historic public health crisis that is shuttering businesses and threatening livelihoods.

Moon in a statement thanked the country’s “great people” for “giving strength to a government that’s fighting desperately to overcome a national crisis. “We feel heavy responsibility, which outweighs our joy of winning the election,” Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan said in a party meeting. “We will make preemptive and aggressive efforts to overcome the novel coronavirus crisis and the threat it poses to livelihoods and the national economy.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn, who led the conservative United Future Party, stepped down as chairman after losing to a Democratic Party candidate in a key Seoul district and apologised to supporters for “failing to prevent the country from going in a wrong direction at an important time”.

More than 17 million South Koreans voted on Wednesday. When combined with the 11.8 million early and mailed-in votes, turnout was 66.2 per cent, the highest since 71.9 per cent turnout in a 1992 general election, the National Election Commission said.

Analysts struggled to explain the surprisingly high turnout. Some said fear and alertness over the pandemic may have driven voters to support Moon’s government so it could fight the virus and its impact with more political stability.

Before the virus began absorbing public attention, Moon’s support was faltering over a decaying job market, corruption scandals surrounding key political allies and troubled ties with North Korea.

But surveys ahead of the polls indicated growing support, reflecting public approval of an aggressive test-and-quarantine programme credited with lowering fatality rates for COVID-19 compared to China and some places in Europe and North America.

Chairperson of the Election Campaign Committee of the ruling Democratic Party Lee Hae-chan places a sticker onto one of the party’s winning candidates’ photographs for Parliamentary election at the National Assembly in Seoul. PHOTO: AP