SEOUL: Going by opinion polls, the two leading candidates for South Korea's presidency have a big problem - their disapproval ratings are so high that the Mar 9 vote has been dubbed the "unlikeable election".
Started by pundits and popularised by the media, the name has stuck, and even the candidates shamefacedly acknowledge the ugly image they've helped create.
Voters wanting to hear what they will do about runaway property prices and the widening income inequality in Asia's fourth largest economy have been disappointed by election campaigns that have stooped to vicious personal attacks.
"I know people are worried about intensifying back-to-back negative campaigns," Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party candidate, said during a news conference last week in which he pledged to focus more on policy issues.
"I am ashamed every time I hear this is the most unlikeable election. I sincerely apologise."
Lee and Yoon Suk-yeol, his rival from the conservative People Power Party, will participate in the first live television debate between the main contenders on Thursday (Feb 3) evening.
A former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee gained prominence through his aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his advocacy of universal basic income, while Yoon is a former prosecutor-general and political novice.
Both parties' smear tactics have targeted not just the candidates, but their families too.
Yoon was forced to deny accusations levelled by Democrats that a shaman who is close to his wife was deeply involved in the People Power Party campaign.
But, he also had to apologise for his wife's inaccurate resume when she applied for teaching jobs years ago.
For his part, Lee has apologised over his son's illegal gambling, and he was forced back into damage limitation mode by media reports on Thursday.
Lee said he would undergo an investigation if necessary after allegations that a provincial government employee illegally served as a personal assistant to his wife and that she misappropriated government funds through a corporate credit card.
Lee apologised for causing public concern, but did not say whether the reports were true.
All the mudslinging has left many voters holding their noses while making their pick.
"I can't help but keep thinking who's the lesser evil, which makes me sad," said Kim, a 38-year-old office worker who only gave her surname, and identified herself as a floating voter.
Until recently, surveys conducted for various newspapers and broadcasters showed both Lee and Yoon drawing disapproval ratings of about 60 per cent, but now they are down to 50 per cent or less.
The support numbers are unconvincing, with polls showing conflicting results.
A survey released on Thursday by Hangil Research showed 40.4 per cent of respondents favoured Lee and 38.5 per cent picked Yoon, while Opinion Research Justice put Yoon 5.4 per cent ahead with 43.5 per cent.
Public disillusion with the country's political class festered during the five-year term of the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in.
Presidents are only allowed one term in South Korea. And having vowed to clean up politics after his predecessor was impeached and jailed for graft, Moon's own presidency became mired in policy failures and corruption scandals, fuelling voters' cynicism over the perceived hypocrisy.
The chief beneficiary from the backlash against mainstream politicians has been Ahn Cheol-soo, a renowned software mogul and doctor who is running as a minor opposition challenger after losing to Moon in the 2017 election.
Ahn's ratings hovered between 7 and 8 per cent in the latest polls after peaking at about 15 per cent, but his showing has added to uncertainty over the ballot's outcome.
Polls show Yoon and Ahn would stand a better chance of winning if they united under one ticket, but both say that is not under consideration for now, even if some of their campaign staff think it could be the way to go.