By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, March 15 (Yonhap) -- The new coronavirus is rattling South Korean politics just a month before the April 15 parliamentary elections, changing the way candidates campaign and shifting the overall focus to how the government has handled the outbreak.
With COVID-19 infections totaling more than 8,000, experts say the elections are widely expected to be polls on the government's response to the outbreak as the current assessment is sharply divided between supporters of the ruling Democratic Party and opposition parties.
South Korea has reported 8,086 cases of the virus and 72 deaths since the first case on Jan. 20.
The coronavirus outbreak has not only halted conventional election campaigning but also taken away voters' interests from political parties' election pledges and candidates.
As the government calls for the "social distancing" drive to stem the spread of the virus, the familiar scenes of election campaigning -- meeting voters, shaking hands and public speeches -- are no longer being seen in South Korean politics.
Abandoning face-to-face contacts with voters, preliminary candidates for the elections are focusing on online electioneering and doing coronavirus-related volunteer work.
Two high-profile politicians who will contest in Jongno in central Seoul, a symbolic constituency in Korean politics, are no exception.
Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and Hwang Kyo-ahn, chief of the main opposition United Future Party (UFP), have sprayed antiseptic in Jongno as volunteer work in recent weeks.
Ahn Cheol-soo, chief of a minor party, traveled to the hardest-hit southeastern city of Daegu earlier this month to do medical volunteer work for 15 days. Ahn has a medical doctor's license.
As the coronavirus has overshadowed pending issues, rival parties have shifted the focus of their election strategy to how to respond to the outbreak.
The DP appealed for voters to lend support to the government's drive to fight the coronavirus and minimize the economic impact of the pandemic.
"The early overcoming of the COVID-19 situation and emergency responses to the economic crisis are the way to stage election campaigning and tide over the national difficulty," DP chairman Lee Hae-chan said at a party meeting Saturday.
The ruling party focuses on emergency economic measures as the potential prolonged impacts by the pandemic on the economy will likely seriously chill voters' sentiment. The DP called for increasing an extra budget worth 11.7 trillion won (US$9.61 billion) by another 6 trillion won.
The main opposition UFP, meanwhile, highlighted what it called the government's failure to contain the coronavirus at the early stage of the outbreak.
The conservative party has condemned the government's reluctance to impose an entry ban on Chinese and the bungled supply of face masks to the public.
The government implemented a new rationing system for face masks Monday, but public anger still persists due to the short supply of masks.
In a recent survey on 1,001 people by Gallup Korea, 43 percent of the respondents said they want the ruling party to be victorious in the election. Those who think more opposition candidates should be elected also accounted for 43 percent.
Political analysts said the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to dent the voting rate as voters may refrain from visiting polling stations on infection concerns.
The voter turnout for the 2016 parliamentary elections reached 58 percent.
"If the virus situation persists, the voter turnout will probably fall and politically moderate voters may not cast ballots," said Yu Yong-wha, a visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
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