South Korean ruling party wins vote held amid virus fears

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The ruling liberal party secured a resounding victory in South Korea’s parliamentary elections, which had the highest turnout in nearly three decades despite the coronavirus pandemic forcing social distancing at polling places.

The ruling Democratic Party and a satellite party it created to win proportional representative seats combined to win 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, election officials said as they completed vote-counting on Thursday. Meanwhile, conservatives suffered their worst showing in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area in years.

The comfortable majority will likely embolden President Moon Jae-in’s government to pursue its key domestic and foreign objectives, such as reviving diplomacy with nuclear-armed rival North Korea, while it grapples with a historic public health crisis that is shuttering businesses and threatening livelihoods.

Moon in a statement thanked the country’s “great people” for “giving strength to a government that’s fighting desperately to overcome a national crisis.”

“We feel heavy responsibility, which outweighs our joy of winning the election,” Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan said in a party meeting. “We will make preemptive and aggressive efforts to overcome the novel coronavirus crisis and the threat it poses to livelihoods and the national economy.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn, who led the conservative United Future Party, stepped down as chairman after losing to a Democratic Party candidate in a key Seoul district and apologized to supporters for “failing to prevent the country from going in a wrong direction at an important time.”

More than 17 million South Koreans voted on Wednesday. When combined with the 11.8 million early and mailed-in votes, turnout was 66.2%, the highest since 71.9% turnout in a 1992 general election, the National Election Commission said.

Analysts struggled to explain the surprisingly high turnout. Some said fear and alertness over the pandemic may have driven voters to support Moon’s government so it could fight the virus and its impact with more political stability.

Before the virus began absorbing public attention, Moon’s support was faltering over a decaying job market, corruption scandals surrounding key political allies and troubled ties with North Korea.

But surveys ahead of the polls indicated growing support, reflecting public approval of an aggressive test-and-quarantine program credited with lowering fatality rates for COVID-19 compared to China and some places in Europe and North America. As of Thursday, South Korea had more than 10,600 people infected with 229 confirmed deaths.

It drew contrasts with upended election cycles in the United States and Europe and possibly set an example for how democratic elections can be handled during a pandemic.

South Korean election and health officials had prepared safeguards to reduce the risk of the virus being spread.

Masks were worn by voters and poll workers. A meter (3 feet) of social distancing space was marked from nearby streets all the way to the ballot booths. Voters who passed a fever screening were given sanitizing gel and disposable plastic gloves before entering booths. Anyone with a fever was whisked to a separate area to vote.

More than 11,150 people formally quarantined in their homes were escorted or monitored through tracking apps while they cast their ballots later than other voters. Workers fully dressed in protective suits sanitized the booths after each vote. Those hospitalized or in isolation or quarantine could vote by mail or at temporary shelters during early voting last week.

Health officials acknowledged it would take at least a week or two to assess the election’s impact on the epidemic.

The controls weren’t perfect. Park Jong-hyun, an official from the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, said at least six quarantined voters wandered around after leaving home to cast their ballots. Officials were planning to push charges against three of them who visited grocery and cellphone stores, a billiard club and a computer gaming room.

One quarantined voter arrived early at a Seoul polling station while others were casting ballots. Poll workers were tested, but Park said the tests were negative and officials were investigating whether the voter broke rules or was misinformed.