South Koreans flocked to polling stations to elect a new leader on Tuesday, with a high turnout suggesting voters are eager to move on from a corruption scandal that brought down the former president and shook the political and business elite.
Unless there is a major upset, liberal Moon Jae-in – who calls for a moderate approach on North Korea, wants to reform powerful family-run conglomerates and boost fiscal spending to create jobs – will be elected president.
The vote will end a months-long leadership vacuum. Former president Park Geun-hye was ousted on charges of bribery and abuse of power in March to become South Korea’s first democratically elected president to be thrown out of office.
Park is in jail, on trial, but denies any wrongdoing. She had decided not to cast a vote, South Korean media reported.
The National Election Commission said turnout was 67.1 percent by 4 p.m. (3.00 a.m. ET), exceeding the 65.2 percent at the same time in the previous presidential election, in 2012.
The commission expects final turnout of more than 80 percent, which would be the highest since President Kim Dae-jung was elected in 1997, when 80.7 percent of voters cast ballots.
The Democratic Party’s Moon, who lost narrowly to Park in 2012, has criticized the two former conservative governments for failing to stop North Korea’s weapons development. He advocates a two-track policy of dialogue while maintaining pressure and sanctions to encourage change.
He said in a YouTube live stream on Tuesday that South Korea should take on a more active diplomatic role to curb North Korea’s nuclear threat and not watch idly as the United States and China talk to each other.
STRAIGHT TO WORK
A Gallup Korea poll last week showed Moon had 38 percent support in a field of 13 candidates, with centrist Ahn Cheol-soo his nearest challenger on 20 percent.
The winner was expected to be sworn in on Wednesday after the release of the official result. Most candidates, including Moon and Ahn, have said they would skip a lavish inauguration ceremony and start work straight away.
Moon said he had “poured every last drop of energy” into the campaign, reassuring voters he was in good health despite sporting bruises on his hands and arms from being jostled in crowds during campaigning.
“What are a few bruises?” he said.
A quarter of voters cast ballots early last week, a figure seen driven higher by the participation of younger people.
Polls will close at 8 p.m. (1100 GMT), two hours later than in 2012.
Moon says he would want to be approachable and move freely among the people, even though many thought that “unrealistic”.
“I want to ease up the protection detail on the president, go to and from work with the people and mingle with people after work – I fully believe I can do this,” he said.
A Moon victory would be expected to improve market sentiment at a time when exports are supporting an economic recovery in Asia’s fourth largest economy.