SEOUL (REUTERS) - Early voting in South Korea's parliamentary election kicked off on Friday (April 10), with coronavirus patients casting ballots at disinfected polling stations and candidates bumping fists instead of pressing the flesh as they appeal for support.
The election could decide the control of parliament and shape President Moon Jae-in's ability to implement his agenda in the final two years of his administration, including looser fiscal policy aimed at creating jobs, raising the minimum wage, and continued re-engagement with North Korea.
The National Election Commission (NEC) set up eight polling stations to be used by more than 3,000 coronavirus patients receiving treatment as well as 900 medical staff at treatment centres in hard-hit areas, including the capital Seoul and Daegu city.
The election itself is on April 15, but officials are hoping that people will take advantage of early voting options to reduce the number of voters crowding polling locations on that day.
There are 3,500 stations for voters to cast their ballots during two days of early voting starting on Friday.
Polling stations were disinfected on Thursday ahead of opening, and all voters are required to wear a mask, use sanitisers and wear gloves.
Officials conducted temperature checks at the entrance and anyone showing a temperature higher than 37.5 deg C was directed to special booths.
Despite the coronavirus precautions, voters were enthusiastic.
"It was a little uncomfortable since I had to put on plastic," said Ms Kim Ju-yeon, 22, who voted at a polling station at Seoul Station, referring to the gloves she had to wear. "But because voting is a must, the experience was reassuring."
Mr Moon cast his ballot on Friday at a polling station near the presidential office Blue House.
"There might be a long line of voters on the election day. I hope the early voting distributes that number," Mr Moon said after voting.
The government is still debating plans to allow for voting by the roughly 46,500 people who have not tested positive but are in self-quarantine.
"Those in self-quarantine should also be ensured their right to vote. The concern is how to minimise the risk of further infection during the voting process," Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing earlier.
Mr Kim said the people in self-isolation could not take part in the early voting because of the risk they might be infected.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 27 new coronavirus cases on Friday, bringing the national tally to 10,450. It was a new low since daily cases peaked at more than 900 in late February.
A total of 7,117 people have recovered from the virus, while 3,125 are still receiving treatment. The national death toll rose by four to 208.
The South Korean city of Daegu, which endured the first large coronavirus outbreak outside of China, reported zero new cases for the first time since late February.
With at least 6,807 confirmed cases, Daegu accounts for more than half of all South Korea's 10,450 infections.
Candidates who began the official campaign period earlier in April have been wearing masks and exchanging fist bumps in individual meetings, shunning the usual handshakes and large rallies.
"Since this is a time to maintain social distance due to coronavirus, we are refraining from large rallies as much as possible and also limiting personal contact during campaigns," said Lee Nak-yon, a former prime minister running for the parliament said.
The head of the main opposition United Future Party, Mr Hwang Kyo-ahn, was spotted disinfecting residential areas.