Presidential election too close to call
In Korea's closest presidential election ever, frontrunners Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) were neck-and-neck in exits polls, making a victor too close to call late Wednesday.
Two exit polls released immediately after voting ended at 7:30 p.m. showed a dead heat, with less than 1 percentage point differences between the two presidential candidates. In both polls, the difference was within the margin of error.
In an exit poll jointly conducted by the three terrestrial broadcasters, KBS, MBC and SBS, Yoon scored 48.4 percent compared to Lee's 47.8 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 0.8 percentage points. Sim Sang-jeung, presidential candidate for the minor progressive Justice Party, trailed with 2.5 percent.
The poll surveyed 73,297 voters at 330 polling stations nationwide and had a 95 percent confidence level.
An exit poll conducted by JTBC, an affiliate of the JoongAng Ilbo, gave Lee 48.4 percent compared to Yoon's 47.7 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.2 percentage points. Sim received 2.5 percent.
The JTBC exit poll had a 95 percent confidence level.
Neither exit poll reflected votes from Covid-19 patients and quarantined voters, who voted from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. after all other voters.
As of the newspaper's closing time of 10:20 p.m., 5.36 percent of the ballots were counted. Lee won 51.43 percent and Yoon 45.46 percent.
Final results may not be clear until Thursday morning.
Voter turnout was 77.1 percent out of a total of 44,197,692 eligible voters for the 20th presidential election, according to the National Election Commission (NEC).
That was just short of the 77.2 percent turnout in the 2017 snap presidential election, which resulted in the victory of President Moon Jae-in after the impeachment and ouster of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Despite anticipation that there would be particularly high turnout after record early voting turnout of 36.93 percent of all registered voters last Friday and Saturday, Wednesday's note didn't hit 80 percent, a turnout last reached in 1997.
Turnout was highest in Gwangju, at 81.5 percent, followed by South Jeolla (81.1 percent), North Jeolla (80.6 percent) and Sejong (80.3 percent). Seoul's turnout was 77.9 percent, Gyeonggi's 76.7 percent and Incheon's 74.8 percent.
Voters cast their ballots at 14,464 polling stations nationwide, either from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday or, for people with Covid-19 or undergoing quarantine, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A revision to the election law allowed the extension of voting hours due to the pandemic.
Ballots were transferred to 251 counting stations after voting closed at 7:30 p.m. and tallying began shortly after 8 p.m.
There were 12 presidential candidates.
Lee and Yoon were in a tight race through most of the campaign, far ahead of the other two major candidates, Justice Party's Sim and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party. Ahn withdrew from the presidential race last Thursday and supported Yoon in a last-minute alliance with the PPP, after ballot papers had already been printed.
Both frontrunners broke the norm in that they do not come from a parliamentary background. Most previous presidential candidates have had experience as lawmakers in the National Assembly.
Yoon, 61, is a complete political rookie who hails from a public prosecutor background. He became the unlikely conservative presidential nominee after winning the PPP primary last November.
A son of educators, Seoul-born Yoon studied law at the prestigious Seoul National University and passed the bar exam on his ninth try.
Yoon served as prosecutor general in President Moon Jae-in's administration from 2019 to May 2021 and is recognized for successfully pursuing high-profile corruption and abuse of power cases involving figures from the previous administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. He played a role in convicting Park in her impeachment trial.
After stepping down as prosecutor general just over one year ago, Yoon declared his presidential bid in June and joined the PPP in July.
He campaigned for a change in government, championing fairness and justice.
Yoon promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, intended to appeal to young male voters in their 20s and 30s who are turned off by feminism. He has called for a slimmed-down Blue House, and a move of the presidential office to Gwanghwamun in central Seoul.
Lee, 57, former Gyeonggi governor, promised to be a "competent and pragmatic president," partly to distinguish himself from the inexperienced Yoon.
Born to a poor farming family in Andong, North Gyeongsang, Lee, one of nine children, struggled as a breadwinner, working at a factory in his childhood when he should have been going to school, and sustained a permanent injury to his left arm. After obtaining middle and high school diplomas through general equivalency tests, he attended Chung-Ang University's law department on a scholarship and eventually became a human rights lawyer.
Lee has stressed that he is a ready-made president with years of experience, having led Gyeonggi from July 2018 to October 2021 and Seongnam as city mayor from 2010 to 2018. Embracing his humble roots, saying that he comes from a "dirt spoon" background as opposed to a "gold spoon," Lee has promised a strong economic platform and has been a voice for the underprivileged, calling for universal basic incomes.
He also called for a constitutional revision to allow for a U.S.-style system allowing presidents to serve up to two four-year terms. Currently, presidents can only serve a single five-year term.
Lee has also distanced himself from the Moon Jae-in administration, calling for a change in politics.
The presidential campaign, however, was mostly defined by personal attacks and mudslinging.
It has even been dubbed the "most unlikeable" election ever, with people voting for the presidential hopeful they disliked least.
Lee was accused of involvement in the Daejang-dong land development project, which was conducted while Lee served as mayor of Seongnam in Gyeonggi in 2015.
The wives of both candidates became controversial figures and liabilities.
Yoon's wife, Kim Keon-hee, faced accusations of falsified job credentials on her résumés when applying for teaching jobs at universities and allegations of stock manipulation. Lee's wife, Kim Hye-kyung, was accused of forcing civil servants to do personal errand and misuse of corporate credit cards when her husband was Gyeonggi mayor. The couple was also criticized for apparent belief in shamanism.
Both wives issued public apologies in the weeks leading up to the election.
In previous elections, spouses of candidates were rarely factors in campaigns.
Both candidates stressed national unity in the next government.
Yoon said last week he will "create a future-oriented and reformed national government."
Lee said campaigning Tuesday that he will "start forming a unified national government immediately after being elected."
After campaigning late into the night in Seoul Tuesday, the frontrunners watched the vote count from their homes Wednesday, with Lee in his residence in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, and Yoon in his in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul.
Lee cast his ballot in advance in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Friday, during the two-day early voting period. His wife cast her vote separately near their home on election day.
Yoon cast his early ballot in Busan on Friday, while his wife cast hers on the same day near their home in Seoul.
The DP and PPP campaigns monitored the tallying of votes from their headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul. Their candidates were expected to joined them later.