In modern masks and traditional hats, Confucian scholars show ID before voting in Korea's National Assembly elections on Wednesday. Photo: AFP

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party was positioned to be a rare beneficiary of the novel coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, as its adroit handling of the crisis appeared likely to be reflected in voting patterns.

On a bright spring day, South Koreans defied global gloom and headed to polling stations to vote in National Assembly elections, held every four years. Turnout was high.

Though full results will not be collated until the early hours of Thursday morning, TV news reports had exit polls anticipating the Democrats and left-wing allies winning 155-171 seats of the 300-seat parliament, leaving the right-wing United Future Party and their allies with 107-130.

The Assembly voted in on Wednesday sits until 2024. As such, it will guide Asia’s fourth-largest economy through the waters of the pandemic’s aftermath.

But with the International Monetary Fund warning that the worst recession since the Great Depression is looming, those waters will almost certainly be economically treacherous. And with a possible global depression on the horizon – the events of 1929 helped Germany’s Nazi Party and Japan’s militarists into power – those waters could be even more politically perilous for a nation that sits on the tinderbox Korean Peninsula.

Electoral battlescape

Leftist President Moon himself ends his single, five-year term in 2022, when a presidential election takes place. If his party wins convincingly, it will strengthen Moon and ameliorate the “lame duck” status Korean presidents customarily suffer in the second half of their terms, when polling numbers drop and bureaucrats resist ministerial policies.

Voters – 44 million are eligible, after the age of suffrance was lowered to 18 – choose both a local candidate and a party.

Of the National Assembly’s 300 seats, 253 are directly elected; 47 are assigned via proportional representation. Thirty of the latter are reserved for single-member constituencies, granting small parties a voice.

This year, more parties than ever – 35 – are contesting seats. They include two new, single-issue parties. One represents North Korean defectors; the other, feminists.

Moon – a “Mr Nice Guy” leader who has thus far avoided any corruption scandals affecting himself or his family, the Achilles’ heel of countless past Korean presidents – can bank on a hapless opposition. Conservatives remain in disarray two years after the impeachment and downfall of right-wing president Park Geun-hye in a vast corruption/power abuse scandal in 2017.

With Moon’s most recent approval ratings hovering around 50%, his Democratic Party, which currently holds 120 seats, hopes to grab 147.

But if the Democrats win a victory, they could be drinking from a poisoned chalice.

They will have to navigate trade-reliant Korea through the storms of the months and possibly years ahead, when the global headwinds generated by unprecedented sectoral, regional and national lockdowns rise to hurricane force.

That situation will almost certainly grant the opposition plentiful opportunities to assail the government from the sidelines.

And negative signals are mounting. The IMF has downgraded Korea’s growth rate for the year from 2.2% to minus-1.8%. If correct, that will be the first recession Korea has suffered since 1998.

Despite the pandemic, South Korea has not undertaken the national or even regional lockdowns underway in other countries: A street market in Hongeun, Seoul, on election day. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Politics as (un)usual

Korea has implemented social-distancing programs, such as school closures and bans on major gatherings, but has not implemented the lockdowns that have put immense strain on individuals, families, firms and economies in China, Europe and the United States.

Thanks to this near-normality, and although campaigning this year was more subdued than usual, changes to voting procedures were minimal.

In queues outside voting stations, set up in local council offices and schools countrywide, voters were instructed to maintain a meter distance. Inside, masked officials checked temperatures with digital thermometers, then voters sterilized their hands with gel, donned disposable plastic gloves, presented officials with IDs and voted in booths.

Active Covid-19 patients exited their quarantine in homes, medical centers and hospitals to vote after 6pm.

Voter turnout was higher than in any election since 2004 according to TV news reports. Previously, 26.67% of Koreans had voted on Friday and Saturday in early voting.

Citizens, socially distanced, wait to cast their votes in Hongeun, northwest Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Voters’ issues

Asia Times spoke to citizens in Hongeun, a retail-residential neighborhood in northwest Seoul inhabited by both working- and middle-class voters.

Though downtown Seoul and the city’s various nightlife districts are “eerily quiet” – to use a phrase currently beloved of journalists – in districts like Hongeun, commerce and social interaction continues. Markets, shops, restaurants, coffee shops and bars operate – albeit business is down.

“I always vote, but I think that right now, we are in a crisis,” said Jong Hyun-un, 32, a female office worker, after exiting the station. “It is important to vote to get the right leadership, and I think the Democratic Party is doing very well.”

The vote is the biggest plebiscite yet on Moon’s governance. Politics in Korea is a sensitive and divisive topic, hence some voters declined to give full names.

“The big issue is whether or not to support the Moon government,” said Ahn Hyun-ju, 52, a housewife who previously lived in prosperous Gangnam. “I am pro-Moon, I think he is doing great, but my friends, my husband and even my mother don’t support the same candidate.”

The pandemic dominates all discourse.

“TV news, and news everywhere, is about this election,” said a 26-year-old graduate, who only gave his name as Jun. “But because of the coronavirus, there are not many issues.”

Asia Times heard no complaint about the handling of the epidemic.

“Because the government is doing well against Covid, it will have an influence on voting, I think,” said Jun’s mother, Jin-won, 58.

Koreans customarily practice rigorous personal hygiene and are used to wearing masks, but Seoul has undertaken extensive testing, allowing for early treatment of virus patients. It also aggressively promoted contact tracing, rounding out the “three Ts” (“test, trace, treat”).

As a result, and despite a potentially disastrous outbreak in the city of Daegu in late February, it has suffered just 10,591 cases and 225 dead.

Currently, numbers of new daily infection are below 30; last week they were hovering around the 50 mark. At the height of the crisis, they were north of 800.

“I had decided to send my children to study abroad, but now I am not so sure,” said Ahn, voicing a criticism of previously admired Western nations that is now becoming increasingly apparent across Korea’s social media. “We are doing very, very well compared to those developed countries.”

Moon’s administration has managed crises effectively, having previously mastered a massive, two-day wildfire in the country’s northeast with just two deaths.

That record contrasts with the previous Park Geun-hye administration, widely accused of bungling the rescue of passengers on the ferry Sewol, which foundered in 2014. More than 300 perished.

Otherwise, however, the administration can point to few policy successes.

Though two former conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, are serving jail sentences of, respectively, 17 and 33 years, Moon’s high-profile attempt to reform the powerful prosecution remains in play after his personal appointee, Cho Kuk, resigned after a nepotism scandal

The Moon administration takes especially heavy flak for its handling of the economy.

Last year, GDP growth was just 2% – seen as slow by Koreans. Forlorn hopes for reform of the chaebol – the giant, family-run conglomerates that dominate the economy, and which are seen as employers of choice, but are also despised for their abuse of power – have been dashed.

Perhaps more important, SMEs and mom ‘n’ pops are suffering after rises in the minimum wage and cuts to working hours, while conservative media hammer Seoul for its “make work” job-creation policies.

“There is a huge difference between the left wing and the right on the economy,” said a male voter, Lim, 50, a salaryman. “I don’t think the Democratic Party have done a good job on it, but I think they will win this election because of the coronavirus.”

The government can also point to few successes in foreign policy.

With inter-Korean ties shackled to North Korea-US relations, currently frozen, Moon’s ambitious dreams of engaging with Pyongyang are stillborn. Relations with Japan are at a nadir: Political and trade ties were impacted after Seoul took Tokyo to task over previously resolved colonial-era issues.

Under apparent US pressure, Seoul conducted a humiliating U-turn after threatening to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. Clouds hang over Seoul’s alliance with Washington, as defense cost-sharing talks are deadlocked following the Trump administration’s demand for a reported 400% annual increase in Seoul’s financial contribution to US troops in Korea.

Electioneering in the days running up to the legislative elections has been necessarily subdued: A candidate preaches to a non-existent crowd in Hongeun, Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Future fears

Still, the right wing has minimal ammunition.

“The conservative opposition has lost traction as its criticisms of the progressives’ economic policies, North Korean engagement, and political scandals have lost salience,” Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, told Asia Times.

Now, the contours of a very different kind of crisis are taking shape: The IMF has warned that the global recession which will follow the “Great Lockdown” will be the steepest in almost a century.

“I don’t understand why the stock market is soaring and people all of a sudden feel we are OK,” said Kim Ji-yoon of the Asan Institute, a think-tank. “I think all the bad numbers are going to come in about a month: We have not seen what is coming yet.”

Amid dire global conditions, the new leadership will have to steer a trade-dependent economy – one torn between China and the United States, whose animosities have been inflamed by the pandemic – through uniquely turbulent waters.

“I don’t think victorious candidates will be thinking of this as a poisoned chalice as they don’t think that far ahead, every candidate who wins will feel elated,” said Mike Breen, author of The New Koreans, who, like other observers, praised Moon’s crisis control.

He warned, however, that a Democratic Party-led government is ill-equipped to handle the longer-term crisis.

“Right now, you need a government to pump up the economy and chuck in welfare, and they are good at that,” Breen said. “But long term, I am not sure they have the right instincts.”

Looking back on the 2008-9 GFC, Breen pointed to the skills the right-wing Lee Myung-bak administration bought to the table.

“Lee was the only president Korea had with business experience – he had been a top executive at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, so he felt exactly what business people felt,” Breen said. “As a result, when the tsunami hit, Korea was well prepared.”

Korea exited 2008 without a recession. Previously, the left-wing Kim Dae-jung administration, working hand-in-glove with the IMF, had contained the 1997-98 economic which Korea exited via a V-shaped recovery.

Even so, that crisis left a legacy of deep social and economic trauma that endures. Indeed, some assets nationalized then remain in government hands to this day.