SEOUL - The presidential race to the Blue House was neck and neck, with two exit polls on Wednesday night (March 9) projecting a less than one percentage point difference in votes for the two main candidates.
An exit poll by JTBC cable TV showed that Mr Lee Jae-myung of the liberal ruling Democratic Party would win with 48.4 per cent of votes, against 47.7 per cent for his main rival, Mr Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative opposition People Power Party.
A joint poll by broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS, however, predicted a win for Mr Yoon with 48.4 per cent, against Mr Lee’s 47.8 per cent.
This election is set to be one of the tightest races in the country’s democratic history.
About 34 million people voted, which translates to a turnout of 77.1 per cent, according to the National Election Commission.
Polling stations opened from 6am to 6pm, after which Covid-19 patients got one-and-a-half hours to cast their ballots at the same locations.
With exit polls showing such a slim margin, analysts said voters would have to wait until all votes are counted for the final result, expected to come in early Thursday morning .
Candidates may ask for a recount if the margin is too slim.
Mr Lee maintained a lead until around 12.30am on Thursday, when the tables were turned. With slightly more than half of votes counted then, Mr Yoon won 48.3 per cent - as opposed to Mr Lee's 48.2 per cent.
Law professor Lee Jae-min from Seoul National University told The Straits Times that a Yoon presidency would “bring significant changes” to South Korea’s economic and foreign policies as power returns to the conservative camp, whereas a Lee presidency would mean status quo in many areas, including diplomacy.
“Both candidates strongly support South Korea’s alliance with the United States, but when you go into the details, a Lee presidency will try to find a balance between US and China, whereas a Yoon presidency will be more proactive in strengthening the Korea-US alliance,” he added.
This presidential election has been described by many voters as the worst ever.
The ruling party’s Mr Lee, former governor of Gyeonggi province, touts himself as a pragmatic doer who can steer the economy towards recovery post-pandemic.
Mr Yoon, a former prosecutor-general who rode on a wave of anti-government sentiments triggered by failed policies and unfair practices, vows a new era of fairness and justice.
But campaigning was tainted by endless scandals, disputes and mudslinging, which far overshadowed the candidates’ policies and pledges, and left many voters struggling to choose between “the lesser of two evils”.
As the candidates traded insults and accusations, voters felt like they were watching a TV drama unfold. Some people even likened the election to Netflix’s hit show Squid Game, which is about a survival challenge based on children’s games.
Events executive Jenny Kim, 39, wished there was more meaningful debate on policies so that voters can decide who is more capable to lead the country in the next five years.
The economy is battered by the pandemic, property prices in Seoul have doubled after failed reforms, and South Korea is facing tough decisions, given the growing rivalry between the US and China, and a missile-hurling North Korea refusing to return to dialogue.
“Things are tough and people are struggling, but the candidates are fighting over childish issues, talking about allegations that don’t matter to our daily life,” Ms Kim told ST. “I don’t expect any big or dramatic change, whoever gets elected.”
University student Hwang Jung-min, 25, said the scandals do not matter to him because “every candidate has some kind of personal issue”.
“What matters more is capability,” he told ST. “What I want is a president who can resolve the housing issue, create jobs for young people, and guarantee our pension.”