(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 15-16, 18)
SEOUL, April 11 (Yonhap) -- Voter turnout in early voting of next week's parliamentary elections reached a record high Saturday, the election watchdog said, as people cast ballots in advance to avoid crowds amid fears over the new coronavirus.
South Korea is scheduled to hold the quadrennial parliamentary polls Wednesday to elect the 300-seat unicameral National Assembly at a time when the country is fighting COVID-19.
The turnout tentatively came in at 26.69 percent as 11.7 million voters participated in two days of early voting that ran until Saturday at 3,508 polling stations nationwide, according to the National Election Commission (NEC).
It marked a record high since the country adopted the advance voting system for nationwide elections in 2014. The previous highest turnout was 26.06 percent for the May 2017 presidential election.
The turnout for the 2016 parliamentary elections reached 12.19 percent.
The highest turnout came as voters apparently opted to cast ballots early to avert contact with others at polling stations over concerns about infection.
South Korea's new virus cases hovered around 30 for the second straight day Saturday, with its total caseload hitting 10,480. The country reported the fewest new cases of 27 a day ago since late February.
The NEC has prioritized voter safety in preparing for the polls to prevent people from being exposed to the risk of infection.
Voters were advised to wear face masks when visiting polling stations. After having their temperature checked, voters disinfected their hands with sanitizer and put on plastic gloves. They stood at least 1 meter apart from others while waiting to vote.
South Korea set up eight special polling stations, including five in North Gyeongsang Province, at facilities where coronavirus patients with mild symptoms are being treated.
The watchdog on Sunday plans to unveil details about the measures to permit those in self-quarantine due to the virus access to the polls for the Wednesday elections. They are expected to cast ballots after the regular voting hour ends at 6 p.m.
The upcoming elections are widely seen as a vote of confidence for liberal President Moon Jae-in who is in his third year in office.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) appealed to voters to support the government's quarantine drive against the coronavirus and focused on promoting its strategy to minimize the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The main opposition United Future Party (UFP), meanwhile, called for the need to "judge" the government, citing what it called policy failures to prop up the economy.
The DP believes the record turnout will work in its favor. Hyun Geun-taek, spokesman for the party's election committee, said in a briefing, "This record-breaking number demonstrates the people's desire to overcome the COVID-19 crisis together and to build a prosperous country."
The UFP, on the other hand, believes many "angry voters" showed up Saturday to voice their displeasure with the Moon administration and to drive up the turnout in the process.
Higher turnout in advance voting usually leads to a higher voting rate on election day here.
Experts say the big turnout in early voting typically means those who do not support any particular party went ahead and cast ballots. This may motivate those who were not otherwise interested in voting to go to the polls on the election day.
But it is premature to expect the overall turnout will be higher, as coronavirus fears have probably prompted more voters to cast ballots in advance.
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