(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with latest turnout, new quotes; CHANGES photos)
By Kim Soo-yeon and Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, April 15 (Yonhap) -- South Koreans voted in parliamentary elections amid the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, turning out nearly 11 percent more than in previous polls around two-thirds the way through the voting in a sign of intense public interest in what is seen as a referendum on President Moon Jae-in.
As of 2 p.m., 23.3 million, or 53 percent of the total 44 million eligible voters, completed casting their ballots, eight hours after voting began at 14,330 polling stations across the nation, according to the National Election Commission (NEC).
The turnout, which included part of a record high turnout of 26.69 percent in last week's two-day early voting, is 10.7 percentage points higher than at the same time in the previous elections four years ago. The voting was to run until 6 p.m.
South Korea holds the quadrennial parliamentary elections to fill the 300-seat unicameral National Assembly -- with 253 directly elected seats and 47 proportional representation (PR) slots.
The country has gone ahead with the elections as its massive and rapid testing and quarantine efforts have slowed the spread of COVID-19.
South Korea recorded fewer than 30 new cases of the novel coronavirus for the third day in a row Wednesday, bringing the nations' total to 10,591.
A higher-than-expected turnout for the advance voting has drawn attention to whether turnout for Wednesday's elections could surpass 60 percent. Voter turnout in the 2016 general elections came in at 58 percent.
"On the back of the high early voting turnout, this year's turnout is unlikely to be lower than the previous general elections' results," an NEC official said. "I hope it surpasses 60 percent."
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is widely expected to win the elections as the government's response to the outbreak has gained a positive assessment.
The liberal Moon government and the governing party had suffered falls in their public approval ratings, hit by a prolonged economic slowdown and a political scandal involving former Justice Minister Cho Kuk.
But the government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis has apparently changed public sentiment, illustrated in recent polls in which Moon's approval rating shot up to over 50 percent. The DP is targeting at least 147 seats in the elections.
"Your one vote will be the most powerful weapon in the war against the coronavirus and add strength to the efforts to overcome the economic crisis," Rep. Lee In-young, floor leader of the ruling party, said, urging people to cast their ballots.
The main opposition United Future Party (UFP) has called on its conservative supporters and swing voters to support it to keep the ruling party in check.
"I believe people will give us the seats necessary to keep this government in check," UFP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn said after casting his vote. He is running in the Jongno district in central Seoul.
The UFP has stressed the need to "judge" the government, citing what it called policy failures to prop up the economy. The party is eyeing at least 125 seats.
The NEC has prioritized bolstering voter safety at polling stations to prevent people from being exposed to the risk of infection.
Voters wearing face masks should have their temperatures checked at the entrance. They should also disinfect their hands with sanitizers and put on plastic gloves before casting ballots. To keep social distancing rules, voters are advised to stand at least 1 meter apart from others.
The government has decided to temporarily lift quarantine rules to permit self-isolators to vote in Wednesday's elections.
Only people in self-isolation who have no symptoms and expressed a willingness to vote will be allowed to cast ballots after the regular voting ends at 6 p.m. Among some 50,000 self-isolators, 13,000 have applied to vote.
"It is a point of great pride for us to hold the elections as planned despite COVID-19, and even to guarantee the right to vote of the confirmed patients or those under self-quarantine," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said, calling for efforts to carry out the elections in a fair and safe manner.
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