Campaigners hit the streets in northwest Seoul. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

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South Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday to vote in National Assembly elections amid a pandemic and after a campaign that has been quiet on the streets but noisy online.

With 44 million eligible voters, results are expected to be in by Thursday morning at the latest, according to the National Election Commission, or NEC. With the election taking place every four years, the newly elected parliament will sit until 2024. Early indications are that Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party is poised for a major victory.

The Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or KCDC, and the NEC jointly set the guidelines at voting stations at a time when South Korea seems to have contained the novel coronavirus at a manageable level.

The number of new cases is now hovering at less than 50 a day. And Daegu, the southeastern city that was the epicenter of the outbreak in Korea, recorded no new cases last Friday for the first time. Daegu had previously suffered the highest number of new cases – 1,018, on February 27.

Those numbers provided the KCDC and NES with the confidence they needed to go ahead with an election like no other.

Electioneering

Candidates have been asked by the NES not to gather in large numbers, forcing campaign managers to think of new ways to appeal to voters. As a result, parliamentary hopefuls have been holding live talk shows with voters in online fora, posting clips of them interacting with citizens and even introducing popular restaurants located in their districts.

Park Joo-min, a candidate for the governing Democratic Party in Seoul’s Eunpyeong district, has been uploading speeches online. On a more attention-grabbing note, he has also posted a video of him singing a song with the lyrics including his various pledges.

Lee Nak-yeon, a former prime minister of the Democratic Party who is running for a seat in Jongno in downtown Seoul, has been hosting a weekly YouTube talk show with party candidates since early March. Lee also uploaded videos of himself hitting the streets and communicating with market vendors – always a popular demographic around election time.

Ahn Cheol-soo, head of the minority People’s Party, has placed banner ads on leading web portal Naver. Some argue it is not effective since they are not interactive ads, but nobody can argue with the visibility.

“I think it is a brilliant idea to place banner ads on the portal – I can’t avoid seeing them,” said Taek, a Naver user, in an online forum.

As a result of the heavy online activity, “It is much easier to check what candidates’ agendas and pledges are,” Park Kyeong-ok, a YouTuber user, said on Thursday.

On the streets, campaigning has been necessarily subdued. Voters have had two responses to this low-key electioneering. One: It is more difficult than usual to know exactly who is running in their district. Two: The usual cacophony of loudspeakers and trucks blaring campaign songs are largely absent – thankfully.

Moon Myung-soon, 58, a candidate for the ruling Democratic Party who is running in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, told Asia Times that there is a huge difference compared with her previous campaign in 2012. 

“What I held in 2012 was kind of unilateral campaign which focused on delivering my messages to voters without considering direct conversations with people,” Moon said. “But I’ve been focusing on meeting people one on one to showcase my capability as a [potential] lawmaker.”

Moon’s campaigners scheduled 30 minutes between 1:30pm and 2:00pm to call voters by phone – but she found herself preaching to the converted.

“People I called on the phone are mostly members of the Democratic Party,” Moon admitted. She cannot cold call people without party affiliations due to privacy laws.

Electoral foot soldiers have had to tone it down.

“We used to chant our candidate’s name and slogans on the street, but we were asked to avoid gatherings, so we have been walking the streets or standing separately, wearing a uniform, just for expecting to see us to check the name of our candidate,” said, Kim Hyo-geum, a Democratic Party activist in Goyang. 

“When I was a candidate running for the city council in 2018, the whole campaign was kind of a festival,” Kim said. But this year, “… we were asked not to have a loud campaign by the party.”

Early voters flock in

Still, matters have been off to a flying start. Pundits had expected people to vote early this year due to the outbreak, which has compelled citizens to avoid the kind of large gatherings expected on Wednesday.

And so it proved. 

Early voting took place on Friday and Saturday. Over the two days a whopping 26.67% (11.74 million) of citizens voted, according to the NEC, making it – just – the highest record since South Korea adopted an early voting system in 2013. In 2017, 26.06% voted early in the presidential election, a then-record.

The purpose of early voting is to grant those who cannot vote on election day the opportunity to do so, even though Wednesday will be a national holiday. Indications were that many of those who cast their ballots early planned to spend the day off on Wednesday with friends or family.

Citizens at voting stations on Friday and Saturday were required to take body temperature tests, rub their hands with sanitizer and put on disposable plastic gloves. But “three-feet-distancing” did not appear to separate voters even though stickers on the ground warned people to maintain their distance.

 Jeon Sung-cheol, 24, told Asia Times on Saturday that he had not expected to wait so long and questioned the environmental soundness of the millions of pairs of plastic gloves required during the election.

“I am concerned with this waste of disposable plastic gloves,” Jeon said – and questioned the logic of the step. “I don’t know how it is supposed to work,” he said.

With 35 parties participating, the longest ballot paper in history is being used. The length of the document required voting station officials to hand-check the results. 

“Given the circumstances, we had to spend more preparations on early voting than in any election before,” said one exhausted civil servant after cleaning up a voting station on Saturday in Eunpyeong.

Minor changes

In December, the National Assembly passed a revision to the election bill allowing those over 18 years old people to vote. Previously, only those aged 19 could vote.

“I am glad that we can cast ballots, and expect lawmakers to hear our voices,” said Jeong So-hyeon, 18, a high school student in Gangwon, northeast of Seoul, adding that exercising the right of vote is a “special gift.”

But other changes in the National Assembly’s revision to the electoral system are, in fact, minimal.

Minority parties had pressed for a higher range of proportional representation seats, but this was successfully resisted by the major parties. As a result, the contours of the National Assembly remain the same: There are 253 seats up for grabs in constituencies and 47 seats will be assigned via proportional representation.  

Voters have two votes: One for a candidate, one for a party.

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