What is South Korea’s Presidential Election Being Fought Over?

By Somang Yang | February 25, 2022, 2.00pm SGT

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on unsplash 

South Koreans will elect a new President on March 9, in what is expected to be the closest fought presidential contest in 20 years with the two major candidates polling within a margin of error of each other. The match pits the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung, a populist former governor of Korea’s biggest province against Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative People’s Power Party. 

Both candidates are plagued by scandals, from abuse-of-power accusations to improper conduct by spouses, leading many voters to complain that the election has been devoid of serious policy discussions. Polls have consistently shown that voters are most concerned with rising housing prices, reviving the pandemic-struck economy and widening socio-economic inequality. 

Lee and Yoon present voters with opposing visions of government and its role in the economy. Lee came into prominence as a populist, championing Universal Basic Income and a vastly expanded welfare state to become governor of the country’s most populous province. His rag-to-riches life story–a teenage factory worker who beat the odds to become a human rights lawyer–and his muscular response to the pandemic has won him a reputation as an able, if ruthless, administrator.

Yoon is a political novice, having been recruited by the conservative party just 10 months ago to revive its battered reputation following the impeachment of the former conservative President Park Geun-hye, which prompted the last Presidential election. Yoon burst into the public consciousness as the nation’s top Prosecutor under current President Moon Jae-in in the wake of his predecessor’s impeachment. However, he fell out of grace after probing President Moon’s top ally, leading him to become a darling of the conservatives. 

In the absence of a political record, Yoon has hewed closely to the conservative’s pro-business platform. He has committed to regulatory reform, stating he will implement a “negative regulation” approach to new industries and fix regulations that do not meet global standards.  He also stated that he will reform Korea’s tax system to make Korea a leading destination for foreign investment.

The constant barrage of scandals and negative ads have made many voters seek out alternatives, leading a third candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, to poll at 10%. Ahn is a medical doctor turned tech entrepreneur who founded the centrist People’s Party and entered politics in 2011. While the conservatives have tried to court Ahn to forge a joint ticket, he has so far resisted their overtures. Ahn is expected to play spoiler or kingmaker in the waning days of the election. 

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