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South Korea’s presidential election deadlocked after 80% of votes counted

  • Exit polls and vote count show two candidates neck and neck
  • The election campaign was marred by scandals, slander
  • Young South Koreans seen as key voting bloc
  • The vote coincides with a further increase in COVID cases

SEOUL, March 9 (Reuters) – South Korea’s presidential election was too close to be called after nearly 80% of the vote was counted on Thursday, in a race that will shape Asia’s fourth-largest economy for the next five years.

Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, with 48.4%, is slightly ahead of liberal Lee Jae-myung, with 47.8%, according to a poll conducted jointly by three major broadcasters. Another poll by cable network JTBC showed Lee leading with 48.4% to Yoon’s 47.7%.

Nearly 80% of the ballots had been counted by 1:40 a.m. (4:40 p.m. GMT), with Yoon leading by less than 1%, or some 250,000 votes.

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Preliminary results were expected in the early hours of Thursday.

The unusually bitter election campaign has been marred by scandal and slander, but the political stakes are high for the country of 52 million people.

About 77% of South Korea’s 44 million voters voted to choose the leader of a nation whose global status is rising even as it has been torn apart by gender and generational divisions, while facing a conflictual North Korea.

The winner must overcome challenges such as South Korea’s worst wave of COVID-19 infections, growing inequality and soaring housing prices, while navigating an increasingly tense rivalry between China and the United States.

Voters also want the new president to stamp out corruption and continue negotiations to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Read more

Lee, the standard bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon, of the main conservative opposition People Power Party, are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election. Read more

Exit polls suggested Lee performed better than expected. Polls last week had given Yoon the edge after winning support from a fellow Tory who trailed a distant third and then quit the race. Read more

LEE SURPRISES IN SEOUL

Lee was seen garnering more votes than expected in Seoul, home to some 8.3 million voters, winning 45.4% in the joint exit poll to Yoon’s 50.9%. Earlier polls had given Yoon a lead of up to 10 percentage points in the capital.

Cheers and applause erupted in the Democrats’ office as the exit polls were released. Party leader Song Young-gil, who was wearing a bandage after he was assaulted at a rally this week by a man with a hammer, was seen shedding tears. Read more

A nationwide victory for the conservative opposition would represent a remarkable turnaround for a party that was in disarray following the last election in 2017, held shortly after the impeachment and impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.

Moon’s liberal Democratic Party is fighting to protect and pursue its agenda, as well as avoiding Yoon’s threats to investigate the outgoing administration for corruption if elected.

The two presidents before Moon, including Park, were imprisoned after leaving office. Moon faces no specific allegations of wrongdoing, but some of his closest aides have been engulfed in corruption scandals.

A former attorney general, Yoon has pledged to fight corruption, promote justice and create a fairer level playing field, while seeking a tougher line on North Korea and a “reset” with China. Read more

Lee was governor of the most populous province of Gyeonggi and rose to prominence for his aggressive coronavirus responses and his advocacy of a universal basic income. Read more

“UNLIKELY ELECTION”

Both candidates’ disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, insults and gaffes dominated what was dubbed “the unkind election”. Read more

Young voters who backed Moon but were disillusioned by economic hardships and scandals are seen as a key bloc.

“Because the current problems of young people regarding employment and housing prices are serious, I voted for a candidate who is committed to finding solutions,” said Lee Sung-jin, 33, during his vote in Seoul. He did not say who he supported.

South Korea is facing a surge in new COVID-19 cases – with a record 342,446 reported on Wednesday – but the issue has not registered much in the campaign.

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Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith, Daewoung Kim and Yeni Seo; Editing by Robert Birsel, Clarence Fernandez, Mark Heinrich and Alex Richardson

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