South Korea successfully combats the spread of the coronavirus with democratic means. Now the country wants to prove that a correct choice is possible even during a pandemic.
Campaigns in South Korea are usually noisy. The candidates march through the electoral districts with their helpers, mobilize the supporters to rallies and whip up the masses. But now, in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, everything is different before the April 15 election.
The voices of the politicians who are vying for the 300 seats in the national parliament are muffled by the masks, shaking hands is replaced by touching the fists to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus. The actual election campaign has shifted to the virtual world, which is remote from viruses, says Yoon Song Ug, an employee of an investment fund in the capital Seoul: “Much more is happening online.” Even smaller and newly formed parties place many advertisements on the large Naver and Daum Internet portals, says Yoon. “You see banners and links to politicians’ YouTube videos all the time.”
The coronavirus dominates the choice
This trend is significant: COVID-19 lung disease and social distancing are the dominant issues in this election, both politically and organizationally. “The general election is an important test for President Moon Jae In,” says the well-known American Korean expert Victor Cha. Because she falls in the middle of his five-year term and could thus become a kind of vote of confidence in Moon’s leadership in the crisis, says Cha.
There is a lot at stake for Moon: if the conservative United Future Party (UFP) movement of Moons Democratic Party (DP) takes control of parliament, Moon is a paralyzed president. At a time when South Korea needs an effective government in the face of new missile tests from North Korea and the escalating global corona crisis, this could even harm the security and economic situation in the region.
The crisis as an opportunity for President Moon
With the pandemic, Moon may have political luck in human misery. After the impeachment of his predecessor Park Geun Hye, the former civil rights lawyer took office in May 2017 with extremely high popularity. He later moved many compatriots to tears through historic meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But he never got a grip on youth unemployment or low economic growth. Besides, political scandals damaged his reputation as a cleaner. At the end of 2019, only 40 percent of Koreans stood by him in surveys.
“But all of this is now being overlaid by COVID-19,” says Christian Tanks, office manager of the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Seoul. In a poll by pollster Gallup, Moon was above the 50 percent mark for the first time since November 2018 with an approval rate of 55 percent. “And there is one single reason for it that outshines everything,” says Tanks: “his management of the health crisis.”
At the beginning of the epidemic, his opponents collected more than a million signatures for impeachment within a few days. They accused Moon of not immediately closing the Chinese border. The number of people infected with the coronavirus also skyrocketed as a result of a mass infection in a Christian sect in the city of Daegu. For some time, South Korea was the second most infected country after China.
But Moon’s government made a drastic change. She consistently implemented the crisis protocol she had developed years ago and reacted flexibly to new developments: With mass tests and the use of cell phone and credit card data, the authorities quickly identified infected people and their contact persons, who were then immediately quarantined. This enabled the government to quickly locate flaming virus sources. South Korea did not have to take more radical measures such as lockdowns in Europe.
Schools are closed in South Korea and many people work from home. But the companies, shops, and restaurants are open, people enjoy freedom of movement. And South Korea’s government is praised by US President Donald Trump and the World Health Organization as a role model in disease control.
This has a positive mental and political impact. “The atmosphere in my immediate vicinity is comparatively relaxed,” says Yoon. He is in the camp of those who praise Moon’s crisis management. “But I also know many who say that the current government is not doing a good job in economic policy,” says Yoon. “But I think that the current pandemic has a rather positive effect on the ruling party since the opposition has no really good alternatives to offer.”
This ambiguity is also reflected in the experts’ predictions. Korea expert Cha assumes that Moon’s party will at least once again receive a majority with partners and perhaps even sole control in parliament. But the race is still open because a quarter of the voters are still undecided.
Security measures on election day and during the counting
A total of 30 parties face the voters. This plurality challenges the election commission in a completely new way in times of the pandemic. The organizers want to prevent a big wave of transmission on election day. Over 20,000 Koreans who are still in quarantine on election day can, therefore, vote by postal mail if they have applied in good time.
A strict protection protocol then applies in the 14,330 polling stations: fever is measured at the entrance. Whose temperature rises above 37.5 degrees is led into special voting booths. Afterward, voters must disinfect their hands, put on disposable gloves and keep a meter inline in the queues. Masks are of course also in demand.
But ballots are becoming a special problem. Because of the large number of parties, they are too long to be counted by machine. The counting process will therefore probably not only take longer than before. Besides, even more, election workers need to be well protected. Nevertheless, chances are good that South Korea will prove to the world that democracy can also master pandemics without sacrificing civil rights.