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South Korea ruling party wins big parliamentary majority

South Korea's left-leaning ruling party won a landslide election victory, results showed Thursday after the coronavirus pandemic turned the political tide in President Moon Jae-in's favour.

This picture taken on April 10, 2020 shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (C) wearing plastic gloves amid concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus as he arrives to cast his early ballot for the upcoming parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul. (Photo by – / YONHAP / AFP) /

South Korea’s left-leaning ruling party won a landslide election victory, results showed Thursday after the coronavirus pandemic turned the political tide in President Moon Jae-in’s favour.

His Democratic party secured the largest absolute majority in the National Assembly since the advent of democracy in 1987, on a turnout of 66.2 percent — the highest at a parliamentary election for 28 years.

Just a few months ago Moon was threatened by scandals over power abuse and sluggish economic growth, while critics called his dovish approach towards North Korea unrealistic.

But the South’s relatively quick and effective handling of the epidemic — it has also exported test kits to at least 20 countries — was a boon for Moon and his party ahead of the polls, largely seen as a referendum on his performance.

Koreans’ confidence in Moon’s administration was boosted by his so-called “coronavirus diplomacy”, including recent phone calls with at least 20 national leaders, said Minseon Ku, a politics scholar at Ohio State University in the US.

She added that the president had successfully framed the pandemic as an “opportunity for South Korea to restructure its economy — capitalising on industries like AI and biopharma”.

That sat well with voters, “coupled with South Korea’s global recognition” for its handling of the outbreak, Ku said.

In a statement, Moon said he felt a greater sense of responsibility than joy at the outcome.

“We will never be conceited but listen more humbly to the voice of the people,” he added.

South Korea was among the first countries to hold a national election during the pandemic, with citizens still asked to maintain social distancing after enduring one of the worst early outbreaks of COVID-19.

All voters were required to wear protective masks, clean their hands and don plastic gloves, and undergo temperature checks on arrival at the polling station.

Those found to have fevers cast their ballots in separate booths disinfected between each user.

National anthem
South Korea uses a mix of first-past-the-post seats and proportional representation, and Moon’s Democratic Party and a sister organisation took a total of 180 seats in the 300-member National Assembly.

The main conservative opposition United Future Party (UFP) and its satellite secured 103.

Moon’s position was not at issue as he is directly elected, but the absolute majority means he is likely to be less of a lame duck than previous presidents towards the end of their single five-year term.

“It should give his administration greater momentum,” said Andrew Yeo, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America.

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho became the first defector ever to be directly elected to the South’s parliament, winning for the UFP in Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district.

Thae shed a tear as he sang South Korea’s national anthem after his win was confirmed early Thursday.

Another defector, Ji Seong-ho, was also elected to a proportional representation seat for the UFP.

But it was the Democratic former prime minister Lee Nak-yon who put himself in pole position to succeed Moon in 2022 by defeating UFP leader Hwang Kyo-ahn — also a former prime minister — in a high-profile contest for Jongno in central Seoul.

The conservative party had “failed to rebrand” itself after the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, which “limited the boundary of support to older generations and core support regions”, Ji Yeon Hong, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told AFP.

But while the pandemic took public attention away from the opposition’s criticisms, it would be “dangerous” if Moon interprets the election as “vindicating foreign policies that aren’t working”, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Seoul’s engagement of Pyongyang has been met with diplomatic insults and missile tests. Placating China has yielded little benefit,” he said.

“Talking tough on Japan has not advanced South Korean interests. And progressives want to accelerate military command reforms and resist cost-sharing pressures in Seoul’s alliance with Washington.”