Moon’s virus handling puts Korea’s Democrats on track for majority

Linda J. Dodson

SEOUL — South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic Party is on track to win a majority in the National Assembly, an exit poll by three key broadcasters showed.

The left-leaning DP and its satellite partner, the Together Citizens’ Party, are projected to take 155-178 seats in the 300-member parliament, according to the poll conducted by KBS, MBC and SBS. The main opposition, the conservative United Future Party, and its satellite Future Korea Party are forecast to win 107-130 seats.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, voters lined up from early morning to cast their ballots on Wednesday. The turnout was 63.6% — the highest in a general election since 2000 — with a record 26% of eligible citizens casting ballots in early voting last week.

The projected win for Moon’s party is a vindication of his government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. It also paves the way for him to push on with his agenda, which includes “inclusive” economic policies, reform of the prosecution system, and the Korean Peninsula peace process.

Analysts say the government’s handling of the coronavirus was a vote winner. South Korea reported 27 new cases on Tuesday, keeping the number under 40 for six consecutive days. The total number of cases has reached 10,564 with 222 deaths, but the fatality rate of around 2% is one of the lowest in the world.

The country’s public health authorities have tested more than half a million people, and locked down cluster infections. The government has encouraged all citizens to remain indoors and has mandated social distancing measures, such as the closing of parks, bars, sporting venues and other public places. Yet it has not resorted to an all-out shutdown of the country.

A Realmeter opinion poll released on Monday showed 54.5% of respondents approving of Moon’s performance, up from 48.7% in early March.

“The comparatively high degree of success the government has had in containing the outbreak has significantly boosted Moon’s political standing and reduced the risk that disgruntled [DP] supporters and independents will be motivated to vote against his party’s candidates in the elections,” said Scott Seaman, Asia director at Eurasia Group.

“The proportion of independent and unaffiliated voters … has declined steadily over the past several weeks, with more people in this segment of the electorate appearing to flow into the [DP] camp as the pace of new cases slackened and the government received more recognition for its efforts.”

But races in some key seats are tight. The gap between DP candidate and former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon over UFP leader Hwang Kyo-ahn in a Seoul constituency is within 10 percentage points, according to the exit poll. The matchup between Moon’s former spokesperson Ko Min-jung and former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon of the UFP is also close.

The UFP’s Thae Yong-ho is projected to become the first North Korean defector to win a seat in the parliament through an election.

The DP is forecast to have performed well in many regions, including Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Gwangju, while the UFP looks set to win seats in Busan, Daegu, and North and South Gyeongsang provinces.

The two main parties launched their own satellite parties in an attempt to win more seats in the proportional vote. The left-wing Justice Party was projected to come third with five to seven seats, the exit poll indicated.

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