SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Voters will go to 14,330 polling booths across the nation Wednesday (Apr 15) to elect 300 lawmakers who will serve a four-year term beginning May 30.
The election is essentially seen as a midterm judgement of President Moon Jae-in’s five-year tenure, which expires in 2022.
However, the spread of the novel coronavirus has shifted focus to the assessment of how his government has handled the health crisis from what it has done over the past three years.
The fallout from the outbreak and competitive proposals by rival political parties to provide citizens with rescue funds have engulfed other issues in the campaign.
The pendulum appears to have swung toward the liberal ruling Democratic Party as the Moon government’s response to the outbreak has gained a positive assessment from the public.
President Moon’s approval rating rose to a 17-month high of 54.4 percent last week on the back of the relatively successful containment of the virus, according to a poll released Monday (Apr 13).
The ruling party hopes President Moon’s high approval rating will translate into support for its candidates as more voters cast ballots to back the government’s quarantine efforts and measures to cushion the economic impact of Covid-19.
It is aiming to win a parliamentary majority. The ruling party currently holds 120 seats in the 300-member National Assembly.
Some figures close to President Moon have voiced expectations that the Democratic Party and other liberal and progressive parties aligned with it will secure up to 180 seats combined.
The conservative main opposition United Future Party has been ineffective in taking issue with what it calls the government’s misplaced policies. It says they have dampened economic vitality, failed to denuclearise North Korea and weakened the South Korea-US alliance.
Its leader Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is running in a constituency in Seoul, has proposed to give 500,000 won ($580) to all citizens in response to the government’s plan to pay up to 1 million won in relief money to households in the bottom 70 percent income bracket.
His proposal, which prompted the ruling party to call for providing the planned rescue funds to all households, has deflected the focus of his party’s campaign away from the ill-conceived policies pushed by the government.
The opposition party has criticised the government for indulging in “self-praise” with regard to the containment of the virus, which it says should be attributed to the devotion of medical staff and ordinary citizens’ efforts to maintain social distancing.
This argument may make some sense, but has fallen short of neutralising the ruling party’s campaign strategy to ride on the public’s positive assessment of the way the government has handled the virus outbreak.
A chief campaigner for the United Future Party said earlier this week that given voter sentiment, the conservative party might get fewer than 100 seats. This would give the ruling party a super-majority and allow it to push through any legislation, including a constitutional revision.
The aim of his remarks seems to be to persuade more undecided voters to cast ballots for opposition candidates.
Undecided voters, who are estimated to account for about 20 percent of the electorate, are expected to hold the key to the outcome.
Considering that voter turnout in two days of early voting last week reached a record high of 26.69 per cent, or 11.7 million voters, the final voting rate is likely to exceed that seen in previous parliamentary elections, when it typically hovered below 60 percent.
A higher voter turnout could reflect the electorate’s will more accurately.
Going to the polls, voters need to recall what the government has done over the past three years and think about whether it would be good for the nation to stay on this same course down the road.
It is noteworthy that the ruling party has shied away from trumpeting the performance of the Moon government, particularly in the economic arena, throughout the campaign.
Still, it has made no pledge to try to redress the administration’s ill-conceived policies, including the income-led growth drive and the plan to phase out nuclear power.
An election victory, particularly an overwhelming one, might lead the Moon administration to cling even more tightly to its misplaced policies.
In addition, it would be less inclined to implement regulatory and labour reforms and other measures needed to ensure that the nation is prepared for the time after the coronavirus crisis comes to an end.
The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.