SEOUL - South Koreans turned out in in droves on Wednesday (April 15) to elect 300 legislators despite concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.
Twenty-eight million people or 65.2 per cent of the 44 million eligible voters, including 18-year-olds for the first time, cast their ballots at polling stations across the country.
It was the highest turnout in 20 years.
South Korea is the first Asian country to hold a national election since the pandemic was declared on Mar 11. The coronavirus has so far infected 10,591 people in the country and Covid 19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed 225.
The election, which takes place once every four years, is widely seen as a referendum on President Moon Jae-in, whose five-year term will end in mid-2022.
An exit poll by public broadcaster KBS showed that the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and its affiliated Platform Party will win the poll with a majority of between 155 and 178 seats.
The main opposition United Future Party (UFP) and its affiliated Future Korea Party would likely take between 107 and 130 seats, the poll showed.
Experts expect the DP to extend its lead in parliament, given that the government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak is 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 is reportedly hoping to win at least 147 seats - 24 more than in the outgoing parliament - while the conservative UFP is aiming to secure at least 125 seats, three more than previously.
Voting for 253 single-member constituencies and 47 proportional representation seats kicked off at 6am.
A total of 35 parties are vying for the proportional representation seats which resulted in the longest ballot paper ever at 48.1cm.
After polling ends at 6pm, people who are under self-quarantine and display no symptoms will be allowed to vote at separate booths within the same polling station.
They must be escorted by health officials, or be monitored by a tracking app.
Strict measures are in place to prevent infection, including a 2m social 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 have applied to vote in person. The rest will vote by mail.
Corporate account manager Aidan Lee, 39, left home alone to vote at 7am, as he wanted to avoid crowds and risk of an infection.
Armed with a face mask and hand sanitiser, he cast his vote in an elementary school in the Mapo district in western Seoul, waiting just three minutes for his turn.
"I could see everyone keeping a social 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."
Counting of votes started at 6.30pm.
Full results may only be available on Thursday due to the fact that votes for the proportional representation seats must be manually counted as the ballot papers are too long to fit into the counting machines.
Experts were divided on whether the record-high voter turnout would benefit the ruling party or the opposition.
Professor Shin Yul of Myongji University told Chosun Ilbo newspaper that the opposition would benefit as it meant more of the middle class went out to vote with the intention to rein in the ruling party.
But Mr Yoon Hee-woong, head of data analysis centre Opinionlive, told YTN cable news that "it's very hard to tell who the middle class support, whether they want status quo or judgement on the government."
Political commentator Choi Yong-il felt voting was more intuitive this year as the ongoing battle against the coronavirus took attention away from the poll and left voters with less time to properly examine the pledges of the various candidates.
"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.