According to opinion surveys, South Korea’s two main presidential contenders face a major problem: their disapproval ratings are so high that the March 9 election has been termed the “unlikeable election.”
The label, coined by commentators and promoted by the media, has stuck, and even the candidates are ashamed of the negative image they’ve helped to build.
Voters who want to know what candidates would do about skyrocketing property prices and rising wealth disparity in Asia’s fourth largest economy have been let down by election campaigns that have devolved into violent personal assaults.
“I understand people’s concerns over intensifying back-to-back nasty campaigns,” Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party candidate, said at a press conference last week, vowing to focus more on policy topics.
“Every time I hear that this is the most unpopular election, I feel humiliated. Please accept my heartfelt apologies.”
Lee and his conservative People Power Party opponent, Yoon Suk-yeol, will take part in the first live television discussion amongst the leading contenders on Thursday evening.
A former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee gained prominence through his aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his advocacy of universal basic income, while Yoon is a former prosecutor-general and political novice.
Both parties’ smear tactics have targeted not just the candidates, but their families too.
Yoon was forced to deny accusations levelled by Democrats that a shaman who is close to his wife was deeply involved in the People Power Party campaign.
But, he also had to apologize for his wife’s inaccurate resume when she applied for teaching jobs years ago.
For his part, Lee has apologized over his son’s illegal gambling, and he was forced back into damage limitation mode by media reports on Thursday.
Lee said he would undergo an investigation if necessary after allegations that a provincial government employee illegally served as a personal assistant to his wife and that she misappropriated government funds through a corporate credit card.
Lee apologised for causing public concern, but did not say whether the reports were true.
All the mudslinging has left many voters holding their noses while making their pick.
“I can’t help but keep thinking who’s the lesser evil, which makes me sad,” said Kim, a 38-year-old office worker who only gave her surname, and identified herself as a floating voter.
Until recently, surveys conducted for various newspapers and broadcasters showed both Lee and Yoon drawing disapproval ratings of around 60%, but now they are down to 50% or less.
The support numbers are unconvincing, with polls showing conflicting results.
A survey released on Thursday by Hangil Research showed 40.4% of respondents favored Lee and 38.5% picked Yoon, while Opinion Research Justice put Yoon 5.4% ahead with 43.5%.
Public disillusion with the country’s political class festered during the five-year term of the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in.
Presidents are only allowed one term in South Korea. And having vowed to clean up politics after his predecessor was impeached and jailed for graft, Moon’s own presidency became mired in policy failures and corruption scandals, fueling voters’ cynicism over the perceived hypocrisy.
The chief beneficiary from the backlash against mainstream politicians has been Ahn Cheol-soo, a renowned software mogul and doctor who is running as a minor opposition challenger after losing to Moon in the 2017 election.
Ahn’s ratings hovered between 7-8% in the latest polls after peaking at about 15%, but his showing has added to uncertainty over the ballot’s outcome.
Polls show Yoon and Ahn would stand a better chance of winning if they united under one ticket, but both say that is not under consideration for now, even if some of their campaign staff think it could be the way to go.