(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES with more info throughout; CHANGES photos)
By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, April 15 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is forecast to win a majority of parliamentary seats in Wednesday's elections as voters apparently supported the government's efforts to contain the new coronavirus.
South Korea held the quadrennial parliamentary elections to fill the 300-member unicameral National Assembly -- with 253 directly contested seats and 47 proportional representation (PR) slots -- in the midst of the country's battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of 11:24 p.m. when 58.2 percent of the votes had been counted, the DP had taken the lead in 154 constituencies across the nation, followed by the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) with 94 districts, according to the National Election Commission (NEC), the state election watchdog.
If combined with potential PR seats to be distributed to the Platform Party, the DP's satellite party that only targets PR slots, the ruling bloc may be able to secure around 170 parliamentary seats.
South Korea's general elections have been closely watched from overseas as the country became the first major country to hold nationwide polls since the COVID-19 crisis began sweeping the globe.
The elections were widely seen as a referendum on President Moon Jae-in, who is now in his third year in office after being elected in May 2017.
Moon's public approval rate fell to the 30 percent level at one point last year, 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's possible victory would lend support to Moon's reform initiatives, including the reform of prosecutors.
The governing party was certain to control a majority of the slots for the first time in 16 years.
Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon of the DP was expected to win against Hwang Kyo-ahn, chief of the UFP, in the Jongno district in central Seoul.
A high-profile race has unfolded between Lee and Hwang in Jongno, a symbolic constituency in Korean politics, as they are viewed as potential presidential candidates.
Meanwhile, the conservative UFP was expected to suffer its third straight defeat in elections, including in the 2018 local elections, since the 2017 ouster of former President Park Geun-hye.
The conservative party failed to win over voters, though it highlighted the government's failure to prop up the economy and stressed the need to keep the DP in check.
Voter turnout in the parliamentary elections tentatively came in at 66.2 percent, the highest turnout in 28 years, according to the National Election Commission (NEC).
Voter turnout in early voting also reached a record 26.69 percent.
The NEC prioritized bolstering voter safety at polling stations to prevent people from being exposed to the risk of infection.
Voters wearing face masks had their temperatures checked at the entrance. They also disinfected their hands with sanitizers and put on plastic gloves before casting ballots. To keep social distancing rules, voters were advised to stand at least 1 meter apart from others.
Self-isolators over the virus were also allowed to vote after the regular voting ended at 6 p.m. as the government temporarily lifted quarantine rules.
Only people in self-isolation who have no symptoms and expressed a willingness to vote were permitted to cast ballots.
The general elections were conducted under the new electoral reform bill that was passed in December. The new rules called for adopting a mixed-member PR scheme and lowering the voting age to 18.
The new system could work favorably for minor parties, as the method of distributing PR seats will better reflect votes cast for parties.
But the DP and the UFP created satellite sister parties that only target PR seats, drawing criticism that the move undermines the intent of the newly introduced PR system.
The longest-ever ballots of 48.1 centimeters were used for PR voting, as the number of parties targeting the slots reached a record 35. The ballots will be counted manually for the first time in 18 years.
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