By Anna Fifield · WORLD, (c) 2017, The Washington Post · · May 09, 2017 -
SEOUL - Millions of South Koreans are going to the polls Tuesday to elect a new president, bringing about an end to six months of political turmoil but opening a new and potentially difficult chapter in relations with the United States.
Moon Jae-in, a progressive candidate who wants to resume engagement with North Korea at a time when the international community is stepping up sanctions, looks likely to win.
Opinions polling was suspended Wednesday, but the final polls consistently gave Moon a support level of 40 percent, double the level recorded by his closest rivals, conservative Hong Joon-pyo and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo.
“Please give me the power to overcome national crises,” Moon, the candidate for the progressive Democratic Party, said at a rally in Seoul on Monday. “The Republic of Korea is going through a national emergency in national security, diplomacy and economy. Without united power of the people, my first step cannot be steady. We need to overcome these crises as a unified nation.”
He held his final rally Monday night in Gwanghwamun Plaza, the central square where hundreds of thousands of South Koreans held demonstrations over a period of six months, calling for the removal of former president Park Geun-hye.
Park, South Korea’s first woman president and the daughter of military strongman president Park Chung-hee, was dismissed from office in March and is now behind bars while on trial for 18 charges including bribery and corruption.
.Park was impeached for her role in a massive corruption scandal that embroiled her presidential office, prosecutors and the head of the pension fund, and the leaders of the country’s biggest conglomerates. Lee Jae-yong, the scion of the powerful family that controls Samsung, is also in detention and on trial for his alleged role in the corruption scandal.
South Koreans are eager to put the turmoil of the last six months behind them and restore some stability at a time when President Trump has tough words for both South and North Korea, and when Kim Jong Un’s regime is issuing a steady stream of threats and missiles.
In an editorial titled “From garbage to a garden,” the JoongAng Ilbo, one of the three biggest newspapers, said the turmoil of the past six months “has pushed the country into an unprecedented chaos.”
“Today’s election offers a great opportunity to put the troubled nation back on track,” it wrote.
The DongA Ilbo, another leading paper, said that the Park Geun-hye administration “was an anachronistic throwback to the post-democratic era before 1987.”
“People want a new leadership,” it wrote, declaring that the “days of imperial presidency in South Korea are being numbered.”
“The president whom we have voted for today should not be one of the presidents witnessed by many other eras; we need someone who will open the door to a new era,” it said.
More than a quarter of electors had cast their ballots in early voting, but tens of millions more were expected to vote Tuesday, with some analysts projecting that turnout could be as high as 90 percent.
Voting began at 6 a.m. local time and 6 million people had voted by 10 a.m., according to the National Election Commission.
Moon cast his vote with his wife, Kim Jung-sook, at a middle school in central Seoul Tuesday morning, surrounded by throngs of reporters.
Polling stations will stay open until 8 p.m., instead of the usual 6 p.m. because this is a snap election. Exit polls will be released soon after the polling stations close, but official results are not expected until about midnight local time.
The victor will immediately become president, without the usual two-month-long transition period, after the official results come from the National Election Commission. He will be sworn in before the National Assembly Wednesday morning.
Moon has put the economy at the forefront of his campaign, promising to put together a huge stimulus package and to lessen the disparity between rich and poor.
His core policy proposals include job creation, with the specific pledge to create 810,000 public-sector positions; reducing long working hours; improving transparency in government appointments; and strengthening regulations on the huge conglomerates that dominate corporate South Korea and have been implicated in recent corruption scandals.
Although domestic issues have dominated this campaign, foreign affairs is much higher up the agenda than usual, in large part because of Trump’s election in the United States and the stance he has taken on both North and South Korea.
Moon has vowed to review the Park government’s decision to host a controversial American missile defence system and to resume economic cooperation with North Korea, including reopening a joint factory park on the northern side of the border that Park said was funneling money to the Kim regime.