SEOUL - South Korea's ruling party is slated to win big in Wednesday's parliamentary election, after 66.2 per cent of voters - the highest in 28 years - went out to the polls despite concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.
South Korea is the first Asian country to hold a national election since the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 11. The coronavirus has so far infected 10,591 people in the country and killed 225.
The election, held once in four years, is widely seen as a vote of confidence for President Moon Jae-in, whose five-year term will end in mid-2022.
Exit polls by South Korea's three main broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS showed that the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and its affiliated Together Citizens' Party will win a majority of between 153 and 178 seats.
The main opposition United Future Party (UFP) and its affiliated Future Korea Party would likely take between 107 and 133 seats.
A clear majority in parliament would give President Moon the mandate he needs to boost a flagging economy battered by the coronavirus, and help him avoid becoming an early lame duck. A two-third majority, or 200 seats, is required to pass Bills.
Experts had expected the ruling DP to extend its lead, given that the government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been viewed positively at home and abroad. South Korea has drawn international praise for its massive testing capability and innovative measures such as drive-through testing.
The liberal DP had 123 seats in the outgoing parliament, while the conservative UFP had 122 seats.
Out of 44 million eligible voters, 29.1 million, including 18-year-old first-time voters, cast their ballots at 14,330 polling stations across the country. This marks the highest participation rate since the 1992 elections' 71.9 per cent turnout.
Voting for 253 single-member constituencies and 47 proportional representation seats kicked off at 6am local time.
A total of 35 parties were vying for the proportional representation seats which resulted in the longest ballot paper ever at 48.1cm.
After polling ended at 6pm, people who were under self-quarantine and displayed no symptoms were allowed to vote at separate booths within the same polling station. Strict measures were in place, including a 2m safe distance and disinfection of the booth and stamps after every vote.
Out of 50,000 voters quarantined at home or at public facilities, 13,000 applied to vote in person. The rest voted via mail.
Corporate account manager Aidan Lee, 39, left home alone to vote at 7am, as he wanted to avoid crowds and reduce the risk of an infection.
Armed with a face mask and hand sanitiser, he cast his vote at an elementary school in the Mapo district in western Seoul, waiting just three minutes for his turn.
"I could see everyone keeping a distance but I still didn't feel very safe," he told The Straits Times.
"I voted based on the candidates' pledges, and I hope the election will bring a better future for Korea."
Jobseeker Amy Shin, 26, a liberal supporter, said there were many choices of liberal candidates in her constituency, Yongsan, but she could not find enough detailed information about their election pledges and future plans.
"So I just chose a bigger party that has a better chance to enter parliament, because I didn't want my vote to vanish," she said.
The counting of votes started at 6.30pm. Full results may only be available Thursday afternoon due to the fact that votes for the proportional representation seats must be manually counted as the ballot papers were too long to fit into the counting machines.
As of 11.24pm, 58.2 per cent of the single-member constituency votes had been counted. DP was leading in 154 constituencies and would be able to secure a total of 170 seats including proportional representation, according to Yonhap news agency.
Political commentator Choi Yong-il said the ongoing battle against the coronavirus took attention away from the poll.
"Many people voted, but the problem is that they didn't analyse enough information, so the result will depend on big themes such as supporting the government or keeping it in check," he said.