A record turnout is expected as South Koreans headed to polling stations on Tuesday to vote for a new president and close the chapter on a corruption scandal that saw the impeachment of former leader Park Geun-hye.
Liberal Moon Jae-in is seen as the favorite to win the vote. Calling for a moderate approach on North Korea, he wants to reform powerful family-run conglomerates and boost fiscal spending to create jobs.
Park 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.
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.
Moon was chief of staff for the last liberal president, the late Roh Moo-hyun, who sought closer ties with North Korea by setting up large-scale aid shipments to the North and by working on now-stalled joint economic projects.
Outspoken conservative Hong Joon-pyo, the candidate from Park’s Liberty Korea Party, described the election as a war between ideologies and questioned Moon’s patriotism.
After voting, Hong said the election was a “war of regime choices between people, whether they decide to accept a North Korea-sympathizing leftist government or a government that can protect the liberty of the Republic of Korea,” South Korea’s formal name.
Hong has pitched himself as a “strongman” who can hold his own against other “nationalist” leaders in Washington, Tokyo and Beijing. He also calls for the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea after withdrawing them in the 1990s.
“We need a leader who can protect national interests and hold his ground against the surrounding global powers of the United States, China and Japan,” said Kim Hyeong-seok, a 67-year-old who said he voted for Hong. “This is not the time to keep our eyes just on domestic issues — we need to think about the nation’s long-term future and peace.”
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.
The election is being watched closely by allies and neighbors at a time of high tension over North Korea’s accelerating development of weapons. Pyongyang carried out its fifth nuclear test in September and is believed to be readying for another.
US President Donald Trump has vowed to stop North Korea developing a nuclear missile that can hit the United States.
The new president will also have to face an angry China, which objects to South Korea’s decision to deploy a US anti-missile defense system, known as THAAD, that China sees as a threat.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular news conference the relationship between South Korea and Japan would develop regardless of who became president.
North Korea would be keen to see a Moon victory. Its official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Tuesday conservative rule in the South should be “buried in the grave of history”.
“Cleanly eradicating the puppet conservative group that has committed intolerable crimes is the shortcut to new politics, new life and a new world,” it said.