South Korean Leader’s Party Wins Big in Election During Pandemic

(Bloomberg) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party scored a landslide victory in parliamentary elections held in the throes of the pandemic, signaling to global leaders a strong response to the virus can translate into votes.

Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea and its satellite party could win at least 180 places in the 300-seat National Assembly, according to election results and projections compiled by Yonhap News Agency, which said it amounted to the biggest win since democratic elections began in 1987. Voter turnout was at about 66%, the highest in 28 years and the projected outcome indicates a show of support for Moon’s handling of the crisis.

The results point to a super-majority for Moon and his progressive camp, giving them power to quickly push through a supplementary budget and reshape an economy reeling from the pandemic. It will add momentum to their key goals to reduce income inequality by prioritizing wages, reforming chaebol conglomerates and tightening rules on expensive housing development.

“This is a reminder that people respond to steady, trustworthy leadership in times of crisis,” said Mintaro Oba, a former American diplomat who worked on Korean Peninsula issues. “Moon Jae-in showed you can win elections on a cult of competence instead of a cult of personality.”

Moon, like many leaders, stumbled in his early response to the pandemic, having predicted that the virus would be terminated “before long” only to see cases spike days later. But the government’s focus on mass testing and isolation of the sick to corral coronavirus clusters has been credited with a sharp slowdown in the spread, with new cases now at their lowest levels since February.

His approval rating shot up to 56% from 42% during the crisis as South Korea won global praise for its response to the outbreak. The initial results indicate that holding an election during the pandemic is not only possible but can be beneficial for politicians seen as managing the crisis well.

South Korea’s decision to hold the election contrasts with some U.S. states that have delayed presidential primaries and France, which suspended some local elections after cases began to multiply. Poland plans to conduct its May 10 presidential election by mail-in ballot.

The virus provided an opportunity for Moon to rebuild support battered by an economic slowdown, corruption scandals involving presidential aides and resurgent tensions with North Korea, which fired missile barrages on the eve of the election in a show of force.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo congratulated South Korea on successfully holding an election, saying its “dedication to democratic values in the face of a global pandemic is a hallmark of a truly free, open, and transparent society -- qualities that are necessary in facing the current crisis.” He called it “a model for others around the world.”

Final results may not be known until later Thursday morning but current projections show that the progressive party will have an outright majority in the country’s National Assembly for the first time in 12 years.

South Korea took precautions to keep voters safe: They were required to stand at least one meter (3 feet) apart, cover their faces, wear disposable gloves and be ready to submit to temperature checks, while voting booths were frequently disinfected.

The vote came about halfway through Moon’s single, five-year term, a point when an electoral defeat made his predecessor, former President Park Geun-hye, a lame duck and ultimately paved the way for her impeachment and removal.

“We’ve seen more defeats of a ruling party in interim elections in Korean history, so this is a rare case that a sitting president wins,” said Lee Jae-mook, who teaches political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

South Korea was initially one of the world’s hardest-hit countries and developed tactics including drive-thru testing that have been copied by others. New infection rates in the country have fallen this month to their lowest levels since February and per capita deaths from Covid-19 are some of the lowest among major economies.

“I went out to vote because I believe it’s important to take part in shaping our country, especially with the hit from the coronavirus crisis,” said Lee Kyung-eun, 29, who works at a startup and voted just outside Seoul.

More than 1,100 candidates from 21 political parties signed up for 253 constituencies with direct elections. Another 300 candidates were fighting for 47 seats decided by support for the parties.

Postponing the election would have been a worrisome precedent in South Korea’s three decade-old democracy, with many Moon supporters being among those who took to the streets in the 1980s to end autocratic rule.

“South Koreans have been traumatized by living under the authoritarian regimes of the past and see elections as essential,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser on Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group.

(Updates with results and quotes)

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April 16, 2020