South Korea: Elections in times of COVID-19

South Korea‘s strategy in the fight against the coronavirus has been viewed as a model throughout the world. Now the country is holding parliamentary elections which are dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: istock / Achisatha Khamsuwan

South Korea is viewed worldwide as a successful example of how to combat the coronavirus pandemic effectively. The number of daily new infections has fallen steadily in recent weeks and has been under 50 for several days. It appears that the country has the pandemic largely under control.

The key ingredients of South Korea’s success: early, determined action by the government, fast and comprehensive testing, meticulous reconstruction and contact tracing for each infection cluster and the application of modern IT (e.g. in the form of  Corona-Apps for the smartphone). A strong orientation toward the common good and the active cooperation of the population  in implementing preventive measures also contributed to curtailing the spread of the virus. In public places, most people wear protective breathing masks, and disinfectants are available everywhere, in shops, offices, buses and even in lifts. Despite this, the government had to take measures which considerably restrict the daily life of Koreans. Large events are prohibited and schools and universities are still closed. However, so far, it has been possible to avoid more drastic compulsory measures. Thus, no general restrictions on going outside have as of yet been imposed. Government offices, businesses, restaurants and cafés are still open.


Voting with protective masks and plastic gloves

Now, the country is heading to the polls: parliamentary elections are to be held on April 15th. Under the early voting procedures, voters have already been able to cast their votes at more than 3,500 polling stations, on April 10th and 11th.  More than 11 million people availed themselves of this opportunity, which seems to indicate a high level of voter turnout. The process of casting votes, which went relatively smoothly during  the early voting, has been strictly regulated because of the COVID-19 crisis: voters had to observe social distancing rules in the polling stations, wear protective breathing masks, disinfect their hands and use single plastic gloves before casting their votes. In addition, temperatures are taken in front of the polling stations. If a high temperature is detected, voters are guided to a special voting booth, which is being disinfected after the vote is cast.   

The process of casting votes is more difficult for people who are currently in self-quarantine.  In order to avoid infection, special precautions have been taken for these voters. They are permitted to interrupt the quarantine and can cast their votes within a specified time slot, in special voting booths that are disinfected on a continuous basis. However, there is no possibility of participating in the elections for most Korean citizens who are living abroad, because in many countries restrictions on going outside apply and embassies and consulates are closed.  


New forms of election campaigning

Election campaigns in the middle of a pandemic need creative ways to reach voters. There are virtually no limits to the creativity displayed in this. For example, candidates showed up on trucks, riding electric scooters or even horses. Electoral events – if they occur at all – involve only small groups, or are restricted to the distribution of information leaflets. A popular trend among candidates is to show themselves disinfecting public facilities and playgrounds – obviously with protective breathing masks, which more often than not makes it difficult for voters to remember candidates’ faces. The bulk of election campaigning is taking place online, on Facebook, Instagram and KaKaoTalk. Almost all candidates have their own YouTube channel.  

Programmatically, the focus of the election campaign is the government’s crisis management. In view of the successes in curtailing the virus, the government hopes that the economic consequences of the pandemic will not be as severe in Korea as in Europe or the United States. The current forecasts for economic (de-)growth this year range between -2.3 and +0.1 per cent. The government has now launched several support packages amounting to more than 80 billion euros, in order to cushion the economic and social consequences. In this regard, the Emergency Economic Council set up by South Korea’s President Moon has become an important crisis management committee, in which both employers and unions are represented, along with the government.


Prospects for the parliamentary elections

In view of the, so far, largely successful management of the crisis,  the prospects for the Democratic Party of President Monn Jae-In have improved considerably. A few weeks ago, the situation looked very different: at that time, South Korea was in second place among the countries most strongly affected by COVID-19, after China. The number of infections had soared within a short time, after a mass infection occurred in Daegu, a city of over a million people. The conservative opposition had put the government under pressure with massive criticism and accused it of serious failures, including the accusation that it had not imposed a general ban on travellers entering from China. This criticism has since been largely muted. With 10,500 infections today, South Korea is only in 19th place worldwide and is being praised internationally for its successful crisis response strategy.

The government’s effective crisis management is also reflected in current opinion polls. The approval ratings for President Moon, who has now completed half of his five-year term in office, have risen to 55%, the highest approval rating since November 2018. The Democratic Party is also in the ascendant and hopes to benefit from the government’s successful crisis management. In most polls, it is clearly ahead of the conservative opposition. However, it is difficult to predict how strongly the current sentiments and perceptions will influence the outcome of the elections and the future allocation of seats in parliament, as most of the parliamentary seats are assigned according to a majority voting system. Whether the Democratic Party will succeed in increasing the number of its direct mandates, remains to be seen. But one thing is already certain: this parliamentary election will go down in history. It will be the first in which the focus of election campaigning is not on traditional electoral campaign themes, such as corruption or relations with North Korea, but rather on the government’s management of the crisis in combatting a pandemic. 



Henning Effner is the Director of the FES South Korea Office.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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