By Jenny Lee WIRED Korea
South Korea’s 2020 general elections are just days away, and tens of millions of voters are gearing up to hit the ballot boxes and have their say in who gets elected to the 21st National Assembly.
With all 300 seats up for grabs in these April 15 elections, candidates are in the final stretch of the campaign marathon, covering as many places as they can to woo voters in their electoral district.
Of the 44 million people eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, 11.7 million – about 26.69 percent – cast their ballots in early voting held last Friday and Saturday at 3,508 polling stations across the country.
The New “Complicated” Proportional Representation System
Under the long-standing electoral system, voters will choose a candidate who is running for their constituency as well as a party they support. This is because about 84 percent of members of the legislature (253) would be elected by the most votes and the remaining 16 percent (47) by candidate lists set by political parties.
What has become complicated with the passage of a new electoral reform bill last December is that 30 of those 47 proportional representation (PR) seats will be allocated to parties based on their voter turnout in relation to all 300 seats (including the number of the local district seats they have acquired), while the remaining 17 in relation to the PR seats only.
The change was brought forth to preclude the dominance of the parliament by the two largest parties – the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and its main conservative opposition United Future Party (UFP) – and give smaller parties extra clout.
Longest Ballot Paper in History
But the new system is not without a loophole, as these major parties have launched several satellite parties – for example, the Future Korea Party and the Civil Together Party – to snag the lion’s share of those PR seats with an apparent plan to merge after the election. According to the National Election Commission (NEC), this year’s ballot paper is the longest ever in South Korean history, with a total of 35 parties having registered to compete.
For President Moon Jae-in, the upcoming general election will be a bellwether for how he will finish out his remaining two-year term. If the ruling DPK maintains a majority, the president will be well positioned to push forward his agenda, including revamping fiscal policy aimed at preventing job losses and maintaining recently-increased minimum wage and renewing engagement with North Korea, but if the conservative opposition secures the legislation, Moon may face the possibility of an early lame-duck presidency with attention likely to shift to 2022 presidential hopefuls.
Former prime ministers Lee Nak-yeon of DPK and Hwang Kyo-ahn, now UFP chief, are deemed potential presidential contenders, both of whom are running for election in Seoul’s Jongno District, a key constituency that has produced several presidents in the past.
Special Coronavirus Precautions
The election comes in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic that is wreaking havoc on many parts of the world.
While the United States, and other countries in Europe are still under draconian lockdown, South Korea has gotten the outbreak largely under control, with the government’s mass screening and testing campaign, coupled with intensive efforts to quickly isolate confirmed cases and trace their contacts. Daily new infections of coronavirus have dropped to below 50 from about 1,000 in late February and early March, and it has also seen more than 70 percent of its 10,500 infected people recover from the respiratory disease.
But still, as authorities remain wary of a risk of resurgence, they are taking special precautions to ensure the safety of voters against the virus. Not only are they required to wear masks and gloves at polling stations, but they are also required to apply sanitizers to their hands and to be checked for temperature. Confirmed patients and those suspected of carrying the virus will be casting their ballots at home or hospitals.
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