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The Peninsula

The Impact of COVID-19 on the South Korean National Assembly Election

Published April 9, 2020
Author: Sang Kim
Category: South Korea

By Sang Kim

Campaign trucks with large displays of candidates’ photos and designated numbers playing loud music accompanied by choreographed dance is a common scene during South Korea’s election season. However, with the global pandemic impacting every aspect of our lives, we are seeing different campaign scenes ahead of the April 15 National Assembly election.

In efforts to limit the spread of the virus and flatten the curve, large social events and gatherings have been canceled in South Korea. After vigorous testing and treatment, the number of new confirmed cases per day has declined but the government recently urged the public to continue high-level social distancing for two additional weeks to prevent clusters of cases. Amidst combating the outbreak, South Korea will hold its 21st National Assembly election next week. This coming election is crucial for President Moon Jae-in and South Korean politics in general as all 300 seats in the National Assembly are up for grabs. However, COVID-19 will impose tough logistical challenges to how the election will be administered for both the candidates and voters.

POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS

The Korean National Election Commission (NEC) allows only 13 days for candidates to campaign before the election. With social distancing and bans on large gatherings, candidates have limited options for their campaigns. The Director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged candidates to keep the 2m (6ft) distance from others on campaign trails and avoid hand-shakes, even fist bumps as any direct contact can spread the virus.

Candidates are wearing masks and gloves while campaigning cautiously on the streets. There is no loud music and dancing as the country is fighting an outbreak. Since gathering indoors is prohibited, they are expanding their field operation to target outdoor areas such as the local markets, parks and busy intersections. Despite the government’s advisory, some are still spotted standing close to each other, occasionally without face masks, shaking hands with their constituents and even hugging. Some have taken creative approaches to grab the public’s attention such as marching the street on a horseback and in dinosaur suits.

Because of limited face-to-face interaction with constituents, candidates have no choice but to rely heavily on digital campaigns. Through YouTube channels, blogs, Facebook and other social media platforms, candidates are vigorously posting videos and content to get their messages out.

This unprecedented limitation on campaigning is especially detrimental to new candidates and small minority parties with less name recognition as they compete against incumbents or well-known opponents. Voters who are not active online or follow certain candidates could miss out on campaign information. This also implies that voters will have to do an active search for information about the candidates and political parties before they head to the booth this year. They will be presented with an unprecedented 48.1 cm long (19 inches) paper ballot with 35 political parties to choose from.

THE ACTUAL VOTING

The most important of all is the logistics of how South Koreans will vote across 14,300 polling booths during a pandemic. For voters’ safety, the NEC has announced the new guidelines for all voters to follow. They are required to wear face masks to their polling locations and will get their temperatures checked at the entrance. Hand sanitizer and disposable gloves will be available at the booth and the facility will be disinfected regularly. Anyone with a temperature above 37.5 °C (99.5 °F) or has respiratory symptoms will be taken to a separate booth in the designated area.

COVID-19 patients and medical professionals at hospitals and treatment centers will be able to vote at one of the eight special facilities if they have not applied for a mail-in ballot by March 28 deadline. The bigger question lies ahead for more than 46,000 people who are under self-quarantine. This includes people who have tested positive with mild or no symptoms, had any potential contact with confirmed patients or recently returned from overseas. Quarantine authorities estimate that this number could go up to 75,000 by Election Day.

The government is trying to find a delicate balance between guaranteeing voting rights and preventing the spread of infection. The NEC and related government agencies are considering a temporary exemption to allow them to cast ballots during designated times. As the early voting begins this Friday, NEC is expected to make an announcement very soon.

There are two other groups of voters that are heavily affected by COVID-19. First, over 87,200 overseas voters, more than 50% of the registered overseas voters worldwide, were not able to cast their ballots last week. Due to the global pandemic, 91 missions abroad have suspended voting while 36 missions have either shortened the voting period or the number of polling places. This year recorded the lowest voting percentage, 23.8 percent,  since the overseas voting started in 2012. As overseas voters only vote on the political parties, this could have an impact on the overall party divide.

Another group of voters impacted by COVID-19 is the newest group of voters, the 18-years-olds. After decades of heated political debates, the voting age in South Korea was finally lowered to 18 through a controversial electoral reform in December 2019. There are over 520,000 18-year-old voters, which  counts for about 1.1 % of overall eligible voters. It may not seem like a large number but this is a historic moment for these younger voters  who now have the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.

Unfortunately, with the pandemic disrupting the school system, the new group of voters, especially around 140,000 who are high school seniors, is not receiving the proper voter education as initially planned. As the spring semester begins online on April 9, there is a time limitation on how much election education schools can provide before April 15. This year has been especially stressful for high school seniors as their exams and the College Scholastic Ability Test have been postponed. It is uncertain whether they will be fully prepared for the election or have enough interest to head to the polling next week.

Despite the multiple challenges ahead, NEC reports that more voters are willing to vote this year compared to the last parliamentary election. Out of 1,500 eligible voters surveyed, over 72 percent of them are willing to vote next week. However, with new cases of COVID-19 occurring every day and the number of people under self-quarantine increasing, it will be hard to predict the voter turnout on Election Day. The 2020 National Assembly election will be an all-around unusual and difficult one for the government, candidates and the voters. Many countries will be paying close attention to next week’s election as they also struggle to find a balance between civil rights and public health.

Sang Kim is the Director of Public Affairs & Intern Coordinator at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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