SEOUL: South Korean voters turned out in force Wednesday (Apr 15) to back President Moon Jae-in's handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, putting on compulsory face masks and gloves to give his Democratic party a parliamentary majority according to exit polls.
South Korea was among the first countries with a major virus outbreak to hold a national election since the global pandemic began, and a raft of safety measures were in place around the vote.
Turnout was the highest for a generation, and an exit poll by national broadcaster KBS projected the ruling Democratic party and a sister organisation would take between 155 and 178 places in the 300-seat National Assembly.
It predicted the main opposition United Front Party (UFP) and its sister grouping would take between 107 and 130 seats.
Voters at around 14,000 disinfected polling stations across the country had to wear masks, have their temperatures checked, use hand sanitiser and plastic gloves and maintain a safe distance from others.
READ: South Koreans head to polls despite COVID-19 pandemic
Those with fevers cast their ballots in separate booths that were disinfected after each use.
"It is done very well," said 80-year-old voter Kim Gwang-woo.
"Because of the coronavirus, people are keeping their distance and everyone is wearing gloves."
"IT'S GOOD WE VOTED"
Authorities have warned that infections could surge at any time and called for special vigilance on election day.
Voter turnout of 65.1 per cent was higher than any parliamentary elections in the country's democratic history, according to the National Election Commission. This was in spite of a survey conducted by Gallup Korea last week which showed that 27 per cent of respondents were reluctant to vote due to the epidemic.
Voter Choi Sun-hwa told Reuters she was initially apprehensive about coming out to vote because of the virus.
"But having come here and seen for myself, I felt it's good we voted as planned, and people are taking greater precaution about distancing," said Choi, 56, outside a Seoul polling station.
A boost for turnout came from record-high participation in early voting last weekend, when about 27 per cent of 44 million registered voters cast ballots.
Among them were about 2,800 coronavirus patients, who the NEC allowed to vote by mail or in person, using special booths.
More than 13,000 in self-quarantine who had signed up to vote were allowed to do so after the polls closed.
For a time, South Korea had the world's second-largest outbreak, before it was largely brought under control through widespread testing and a contact-tracing drive, along with widely observed social distancing.
Campaigning was also affected by the outbreak: Instead of the traditional handshakes and distributing of name cards, candidates kept their distance from citizens, bowing and offering an occasional fist bump.
Many turned to online media such as YouTube and Instagram to connect with voters, while some even volunteered to disinfect parts of their constituencies.
South Korea's relatively quick and effective handling of the epidemic has been a boon for the left-leaning Moon ahead of the vote, largely seen as a referendum on his performance.
READ: Ahead of the curve - South Korea's evolving strategy to prevent a COVID-19 resurgence
The country uses a mix of first-past-the-post constituencies and proportional representation, and while the Democratic party was the largest in the outgoing parliament it did not hold a majority, relying on minority support to pass legislation.
Moon's position was not at issue as he is directly elected, but just a few months ago he was being assailed by critics over sluggish economic growth and his dovish approach to the nuclear-armed North.
A ruling party majority in parliament would help Moon to push through his agenda in his final two years in office, with a looser fiscal policy aimed at creating jobs, a higher minimum wage and engagement with North Korea his priorities.
South Korea on Wednesday announced 27 new virus cases - the seventh consecutive day with fewer than 40. Overall, the country has had nearly 11,000 infections and 225 deaths.
Kim Ki-chul, 33, said the recent falls in new cases encouraged him to come out to cast his ballot.
"Compared to the way the epidemic has been handled in other countries, South Korea showed outstanding disinfecting and containment capabilities, which increased my trust in the government," he added.