COVID-19: South Korean elections show effective response to outbreak can gather support

  • South Korea’s Minjoo Democratic Party won a landslide victory in South Korean elections, opening the door to implementing a more liberal agenda for the very conservative country.
  • South Korea’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak may have been the best in the world, in stark contrast to the responses in places like the U.S. or Brazil.
  • Voter turnout, at 63% was the highest since 1996. People wore masks, had their temperatures taken and disinficted their hands, all to give Minjoo a strong mandate leading up to presidential elections in 2022.

South Korea has just held a one-of-a-kind election that ended with landslide win for President Moon Jae-in and his Minjoo Democratic Party.

In the midst of a historic pandemic, this was already set to be an election like no other. Some voting booths were right outside COVID-19 clinics. Voters came in masks, had their temperatures taken, disinfected their hands and wore plastic protective clothing. They also stood 1m apart from each other as they waited their turn to cast their ballot.

Despite the ongoing pandemic and the widespread containment measures, South Korea’s voter turnout was the highest since 1996 at 63%. 

This election also marks the first time 18 year olds have been able to vote, which may have helped boost turnout. The new group makes up 1.2% of all voters.

Besides changing how the voting procedures were organized, the pandemic was clearly on the mind of the voting public as they considered who to give their support to. 

Exit polls by the three main broadcasters in the country gave strong indicators that the ruling Minjoo Party, alongside the Together Citizens’ Party – its electoral partner registered for proportional representation seats – was set to win a majority in parliament. 

Minjoo is a centre-left political party that took power in 2016 after a series of presidential scandals in the country. Minjoo is widely perceived as supporting women’s rights and broadly liberal social policies, as well as opposing institutionalized corruption of the type that brought down former President Park Geun-hye.

As expected, Minjoo won a landslide victory. 

South Korea’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak may have been the best in the world (possibly competing for that title with Taiwan). The country relied on widespread testing and managed to avoid the lockdowns that have crippled many other countries. 

South Korea’s leaders have won praise for how they have handled the Covid-19 pandemic, and are held up in stark contrast to other leaders, like U.S. President Donald Trump or Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who continue to be on the receiving end of much public backlash. This global recognition aided Minjoo in garnering its three-fifths majority, giving it enormous leverage to pursue its future political and social goals. 

“The projected win for Minjoo is largely driven by rising public approval of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, which has effectively slowed the spread of the virus and kept the case mortality rate at around 2%, much lower than the global average of 6.3%,” said the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), prior to the win announcement. 

And it was not just the pandemic that helped Minjoo along. Opinion polling over the past year and in the run-up to the election placed the party well ahead of its nearest rivals to begin with. The conservative factions in South Korean politics have yet to recover from the collapse in confidence from voters over the Geun-hye debacle and the ensuing trial. More than that, they have been absorbed in political in-fighting ever since. 

The government’s focus on low-income households and small and medium sized businesses in its fiscal aid packages has also helped the government win support across key voter bases.

In addition, the new group of youth voters also predominantly support Minjoo, as do an increasing proportion of female voters, who have been strongly supportive of recent pushes to criminalize activities such as upskirting and illegal filming of women in compromising situations. The #MeToo movement has had a particularly strong impact in South Korea, a society that remains both very patriarchal and hierarchical.

Minjoo also has an opportunity to effect its agenda in a geopolitical landscape that is vastly different from what it was just three months ago. 

Just a couple of months ago, the main themes of this election were likely to be weak economic growth and stalled peace talks with North Korea, but the pandemic changed the priorities of voters and gave Minjoo even more momentum. 

“Going forward, the projected large parliamentary majority will allow Minjoo more room, with help from smaller liberal and centrist parties, to overcome opposition from the conservative camp and to  push for its plans to regain economic momentum after the virus-induced economic crisis and its progressive reform agenda,” said the EIU.

Things on the agenda will include deepening labour market liberalisation, reform of the prosecution system, enhancing domestic innovation in the manufacturing sector, and diplomatic and economic engagement with North Korea. There is also a push to end the country’s dependence on nuclear energy, a position that caused shares in the country’s main nuclear power generators to fall post-polls.

The increase in seat share for Minjoo will also help President Moon consolidate power in the second half of his five-year presidency ending in 2022.

“Meanwhile, the conservative camp may face another round of turmoil after the election defeat. Its newly elected leader Hwang Kyo-ahn is likely to lose the competition in the constituency of Jongno District in Seoul and is likely to resign after the election. Fragmentation and infighting within the conservative camp will continue until at least the next presidential election in 2022,” the EIU predicted.