How South Korea is preparing for the world’s first nationwide election of the coronavirus era

April 14, 2020, 10:25 AM UTC

South Korea is holding the world’s first nationwide election of the pandemic era.

On Wednesday, tens of millions of Koreans are expected to go to the polls to elect a new National Assembly, a body of 300 lawmakers that will serve in parliament for the next four years.

The decision from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government to go through with the election reflects with the country’s largely successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s avoided blunt lockdown measures with mass testing campaigns and aggressive contact-tracing efforts.

Six weeks ago, South Korea had the highest number of coronavirus infections of any country outside of China. Now, it’s No. 21 with 10,564 confirmed infections; the country reported one of its lowest daily new case counts in recent weeks on Monday with 25 infections.

South Korea is taking precautionary measures to protect voters from contagion. Yet the true test of its decision to hold the election will not come on Wednesday, but several weeks on, when it becomes clear whether or not Koreans showing up en masse to vote triggered a spike in new infections.

Election preparations

South Korea’s National Election Commission reports that South Korea has nearly 44 million registered voters; almost 12 million of them participated in early, in-person voting conducted last weekend.

Early voters were asked to socially distance in poll lines, wear face masks, use hand sanitizer, and don medical gloves distributed by poll workers to fill out their ballots. Each voter had their temperature taken, and those with a fever or other coronavirus symptoms were tested for the virus and taken to sanitized booths to vote. Those voting on Election Day Wednesday will abide by these same measures.

The roughly 3,000 Koreans who are still battling active infections of the virus were allowed to vote by mail last week.

On Monday, South Korea’s election commission released more detailed guidelines for how voting will take place for the 70,000 or so citizens currently under government-mandated home quarantine. The commission encouraged those voters to come to the polls just before they close at 6 p.m. Upon arrival, they’ll be taken to separate, disinfected voting booths run by officials in full-body medical protective equipment

“The electorate has a reasonable belief that the measures they are taking in voting precincts are pretty reliable,” says Won-ho Park, a political science professor at Seoul National University and expert in South Korea’s electoral system. He expressed surprise at record-high early turnout totals. The 27% of voters who cast ballots before Wednesday was the highest share since early voting was introduced in 2013. “In terms of organizing and managing the elections, [South Korea] is doing a pretty good job, but of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t have any negative impacts on spreading the disease,” he said.

COVID-19 politics

South Korea’s election may serve as a blueprint for how countries can carry out mass, in-person voting amid or after the pandemic, but it will also be the first national test of how the coronavirus crisis impacts voters’ relationship to politics.

In 2017, President Moon Jae-In of South Korea’s Democratic Party was elected following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, a member of the more conservative Liberty Party Korea. Before the election, Moon faced criticism and falling polling numbers over failed policy initiatives and a struggling economy. But now, Moon and his more liberal Democratic Party are experiencing a boost in popularity due to his administration’s perceived successes in handling the pandemic. (Moon is still serving out his single, five-year term and won’t be on the ballot Wednesday.)

In addition to boosting the electoral prospects for Moon’s Democratic Party, the pandemic may be playing a role in increasing voter turnout across the board. In seeing how important it was for South Korea to take decisive measures to counter the pandemic, voters may now have more incentive to ensure they have a say in who runs their country.

“People may be starting to think that we need strong governments to fight the pandemic and truly strong governments need the consent of the people,” says Park. Therefore, “elections have become even more important in fighting against the virus.”

At the same time, South Korea’s containment of the virus has made the pandemic itself less pressing of a priority for voters, supplying oxygen to issues that usually dominate election cycles, like economics and relations with North Korea.

“The big issue of the election is obviously coronavirus, but not as much as you would think,” Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, wrote for the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. “If you can get your outbreak under control—South Korea has been a world leader in this—it need not take over the entire political agenda, nor need it make the physical act of voting treacherous.”

The election Wednesday may provide a glimpse at how voting can take place amid coronavirus risks, but it may also prove that once the virus subsides even slightly there will be a return to politics as usual—for better or worse.

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