After one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, South Koreans headed to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new president
The winner will face mounting challenges in the form of an omicron-driven surge in COVID-19 infections and an increasingly belligerent North Korea.
Presidents serve a single term of five years.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time (2100 UTC) and will shut at 6 p.m. After polling stations close, COVID-positive voters will be allowed to cast their ballots for 90 minutes.
Election authorities said 61% of South Korea’s 44 million eligible voters had cast their vote by 1 p.m.on Wednesday. This includes record turnout in early voting that began Friday.
Who are the main contenders?
The election has become a tight race between the two leading candidates — liberal Lee Jae-Myung and conservative Yoon Suk-yeol.
Both candidates are so unpopular that local media have dubbed the contest the “election of the unfavorables.”
Yoon of the main opposition People Power Party has vowed to root out corruption and take a hawkish line toward North Korea. He has threatened a preemptive strike if necessary.
Lee of the ruling Democratic Party was governor of the most populous province of Gyeonggi.
He shot to fame with his aggressive coronavirus responses and a slew of fresh policies, including a universal basic income and free school uniforms.
A victory for Yoon would represent a remarkable turnaround for the conservatives that have been in disarray since the impeachment and dismissal of President Park Geun-Hye.
What are the key issues?
Top concerns among young voters, who are likely to prove decisive, are the skyrocketing housing prices in the capital, Seoul, domestic inequality, and stubborn youth unemployment.
Both candidates have vowed to build new homes but offered starkly different solutions to the crisis. Lee relies on left-leaning public housing and Yoon on market-led solutions.
North Korea also remains of the major issues in the election.
Pyongyang has carried out a record-breaking blitz of weapons tests this year, including a launch just days before the election.