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(3rd LD) Ruling party certain for landslide victory in parliamentary elections amid pandemic

All News 03:00 April 16, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS dateline, headline, lead; UPDATES with more details throughout; CHANGES photo)
By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, April 16 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is certain to clinch a landslide victory in Wednesday's parliamentary elections as voters apparently supported the government's efforts to overcome the new coronavirus crisis.

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 1:33 a.m. when 83.4 percent of the votes had been counted, the DP had taken the lead in 156 constituencies across the nation, followed by the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) with 91 districts, according to the National Election Commission (NEC), the state election watchdog.

If combined with PR seats to be distributed to the Platform Party, the DP's satellite party that only targets PR slots, the ruling bloc is expected to secure more than 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.

Lee Hae-chan (2nd from R), chief of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and officials from its sister Platform Party put "victory stickers" on the names of their candidates at the National Assembly in Seoul on April 15, 2020. (Yonhap)

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 coronavirus 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 enable Moon to manage state affairs stably during the rest of his single, five-year term. It will also 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.

If the wider liberal bloc, including several minor parties, secures at least 180 seats, three fifths of the total, the DP would be able to pass most bills by putting them on a parliamentary fast track despite objections from the UFP.

The sprawling liberal bloc could pass almost all legislation, except for a motion to revise the Constitution, which requires the approval of 200 lawmakers.

In the foreseeable future, the ruling party will be able to swiftly pass a proposed extra budget to finance the government's emergency relief funds over the new coronavirus.

Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon of the DP won against Hwang Kyo-ahn, chief of the UFP, in the Jongno district in central Seoul.

A high-profile race 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 over a corruption scandal.

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.

UFP chairman Hwang announced that he will step down from the party post to take responsibility for his party's defeat.

Hwang Kyo-ahn, chief of the main opposition United Future Party, announces on April 15, 2020 that he will resign from the party chairmanship for taking responsibility for his party's defeat in the parliamentary elections. (Yonhap)

Voter turnout in the parliamentary elections tentatively came in at 66.2 percent, the highest turnout in 28 years, according to the 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 have worked favorably for minor parties, as the method of distributing PR seats was supposed to better reflect cast for parties.

But smaller parties' aspiration to clinch more parliamentary seats via the new system fell through as the two largest parties created satellite sister parties that only target PR seats.

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 were counted manually for the first time in 18 years.

Election officials count ballots for the parliamentary elections in Songpa, eastern Seoul, on April 15, 2020. (Yonhap)


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