South Koreans go to the polls to choose next president

Incoming leader will face challenges including deepening inequality, surging house prices and nuclear-armed North Korea.

South Korean voters will elect the country’s next president on Wednesday, capping a race that has been marked by surprises, scandals and smear campaigns.

South Korea’s next president will face mounting challenges, including deepening inequality, a rock-bottom birth rate, surging house prices and the threat of nuclear-armed North Korea.

The race to lead Asia’s fourth-largest economy has crystallised into a tight two-way matchup between Lee Jae-myung, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, a former chief prosecutor and political neophyte who is representing the conservative People Power Party.

The two men are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. The winner’s single, five-year term is set to start on May 10.

Polls showed a slight edge for Yoon, who secured a surprise, last-minute boost last week when Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party, a self-described moderate running a distant third, dropped out and threw his support behind Yoon.

A survey by Embrain Public estimated the merger could give Yoon 47.4 percent to Lee’s 41.5 percent, while an Ipsos poll put the gap at 48.9 percent to 41.9 percent.

A former prosecutor general, Yoon has promised to fight corruption, foster justice, and create a more level playing field, while seeking a harder line towards North Korea and a “reset” with China.

Lee was governor of the country’s most populous province of Gyeonggi and shot to fame on the back of his aggressive coronavirus responses and advocacy for universal basic income.

‘Unlikeable election’

The candidates’ disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, mud-slinging and gaffes dominated what was dubbed the “unlikeable election”.

Yoon apologised over his wife’s use of an inaccurate resume for teaching jobs years ago. He denied accusations that his mother-in-law made enormous profits from land speculation and took out tens of billions of won (tens of millions of US dollars) in loans from a bank investigated by a prosecutor’s office where Yoon worked.

Yoon has also dismissed allegations from Lee’s campaign that Yoon’s wife colluded with a former chairman of a BMW dealer in South Korea in rigging company stock prices.

Lee has apologised for his son’s illegal gambling. He faces a potential criminal investigation over allegations he illegally hired a provincial employee as his wife’s personal aide, and that she misappropriated government funds through his corporate credit cards.

Lee and his wife have apologised for causing public concern and said they would cooperate with any investigation.

The race faced many disruptions, with the Democrat leader steering Lee’s campaign hospitalised on Monday after a rare attack during a rally.

And amid South Korea’s worst COVID-19 wave with more than 1 million people being treated at home, election authorities hurriedly tightened voting procedures for patients on Monday amid uproar over early voting irregularities over the weekend.

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