South Korea Holds World’s First National Coronavirus Election

The opposition appears to be coming up short by criticizing the shortcomings of the government’s COVID-19 response.

Supporters of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party listen to a speech during the recent election campaign as citizens take measures to protect themselves against the spread of the coronavirus in Seoul on April 10.
Supporters of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party listen to a speech during the recent election campaign as citizens take measures to protect themselves against the spread of the coronavirus in Seoul on April 10. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

SEOUL—A woman briskly paces up and down the little side alley in downtown Seoul while sporadically shouting reminders through her mask for people to space out more. People in line are busy snapping selfies in front of a poster with the words “Sogong Early Voting Station,” but they do give a quick glance around and shuffle slightly when they’re yelled at.

They’re here to perform their civic duty of voting in South Korea’s parliamentary election, where all 300 seats are up for grabs. But they also have to perform their civic duty of social distancing. South Korea is the first country to have a general election in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, currently enveloping the world.

As the crowd approaches the doorway leading into the room with voting booths, an assistant takes their temperatures with a laser thermometer, and any unmasked faces will be turned away. If one were to have a fever, they’d be escorted to a designated area where they could vote separately.

All voters are given disposable plastic gloves before entering the booth to cast their ballots. Hand sanitizer is offered on the way out. The threat of the coronavirus hangs in the air and lingers in voters’ minds.

“Of course! And my right to choose the right person is very important, especially in this situation, you know, with the coronavirus,” Lee Dong-hue, a young man working in the area, said after leaving the voting station.

Officially, the election is on April 15, but South Korea has conducted two days of early voting at elections since 2013 to boost turnout rates for people unable to show up on election day. Some experts were concerned that the virus would keep people from voting, but it’s rather the opposite it seems.

Over a quarter of eligible voters—26.7 percent—have already made their mark, doubling the early voting turnout compared with the last parliamentary election in 2016, which was at 12.2 percent. The pandemic has perhaps shown people how important leadership can be in case of chaos.

And this is a bit of a conundrum for the opposition: It is undoubtedly a good thing that the government saved lives by handling the situation well, but it is a bad thing, though, for the opposition, now at a disadvantage in the polls.

“The opposition party considered the spread of the coronavirus to be a negative factor for the ruling party at a superficial and general level and continued to criticize the ruling party,” said Choi Young-il, a political commentator and adjunct professor at Kyung Hee Cyber University.

It worked in the beginning. Focusing on the faults, failures, and fatalities proved the opposition right and swayed swing voters.

“At the height of the virus epidemic, some people sympathized with the criticism, especially when it came to why the government didn’t ban [people coming in from] China. If the general election had been a month earlier, the ruling party would have been defeated,” Choi said.

It worked only in the beginning, though. Solely focusing on the faults proved fruitless as the government’s efforts turned out to be effective.

“The opposition’s strategy eventually backfired as the government increasingly earned domestic and foreign accolades for its coronavirus response,” Henri Féron, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy focusing on the Koreas, wrote in an email.

“The ruling Democratic Party in turn capitalized on these accolades by framing the elections as a referendum on the response, for instance by choosing ‘We will definitely win the corona war’ as an election slogan,” he added.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is also experiencing a surge in voter confidence. His approval rating has increased dramatically to 54.4 percent, according to Realmeter, a Korean analytics company, an almost 10-point increase compared with the end of February and beginning of March, when the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases exploded in the city of Daegu.

Opinion polls cannot be published in the week leading up to an election in South Korea, so how the parliament will look Thursday morning will not be known until the ballots have been counted. But it appears that the Democratic Party has a lead—for example, North and South Jeolla provinces, Democratic strongholds, have seen the largest turnout at the early voting stage.

The opposition failed in what Choi calls the “three points to be successful opposition.” The first is criticizing the government’s shortcomings, the second is providing an alternative to it, and the third is cooperating with the government when it is doing a good job.

“It should be balanced—that’s how you get votes—but they didn’t do two or three. They didn’t give an alternative. Citizens want to know if they’ll be better with a new government. They didn’t cooperate, in a crisis people want to see unity,” Choi said. “People only saw conflict.”

Some opposition members have supplied an alternative. Ahn Cheol-soo, the leader of the newly founded People’s Party and former medical doctor, volunteered and went to Daegu during the outbreak to help the medical staff there. A photo of him in sweat-drenched medical garb went viral, and his party saw a surge in the polls. But it didn’t last, and as he returned to his base in Seoul, so did his ratings return to their base levels.

And as it became clear that the government was effective and criticizing it was not, other campaign stunts were adopted, such as going out in an official’s district and disinfecting public spaces—parks, playgrounds, benches, anything that could be sprayed down with an antiviral solution and cleaned up.

The original support the opposition had as the country was taken by surprise over the virus has quickly vanished. And because it doubled down on the failures of the government, it failed to provide the people with an alternative, and when the government succeeded, it failed to play along.

“I think the present government is doing very well, and I voted for a candidate who supports the government, who has similar views and plans [as the government],” Lee, the young voter, said before hurrying back to work. 

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.

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