Polls during a pandemic

While some leaders are capitalising on the COVID-19 crisis, South Korea stands in stark contrast

April 15, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:33 am IST

Hwang Kyo-ahn (centre), a candidate of South Korea’s main opposition United Future Party, greets his supporters in Seoul on April 14, 2020 during a campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Hwang Kyo-ahn (centre), a candidate of South Korea’s main opposition United Future Party, greets his supporters in Seoul on April 14, 2020 during a campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Even as elected leaders in some countries are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on citizens’ basic freedoms, South Korea is shining a bright light on Asia and beyond by holding its parliamentary polls on April 15.

The National Election Commission is replicating the government’s successful disease-control measures in the quadrennial elections for the 300-member unicameral National Assembly. Voters are required to wear face masks and gloves, maintain social distancing, and pass a temperature check before casting their ballot. Those who fail the screening will vote in adjacent booths. Provisions have been made for those under quarantine to exercise their franchise by post. A quarter of eligible voters are said to have cast their ballot over the weekend. In a sign of a return to normalcy, the proportion willing to vote this time is higher than it was in the run-up to the 2016 election. While many expatriates are unable to vote due to the restrictions around the world, some are reportedly even planning to mount a legal challenge against this deprivation.

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A different approach

South Korea’s approach marks a stark contrast to the stance of other governments in Southeast Asia. Last week, Cambodian lawmakers approved legislation authorising a state of emergency to contain the spread of the virus despite widespread concerns that this would give unchecked power to Prime Minister Hun Sen. In March, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha restricted reportage on the epidemic, ostensibly to prevent the spread of public fear. The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, warned violators of the lockdown that they would be shot by the police. He has also seized control of the country’s hospitals, transport and the media.

South Korea’s impressive record in tackling the COVID-19 outbreak also holds important lessons for the free world. In the U.S., many states have deferred their presidential primaries ahead of the November U.S. elections. In a narrow majority decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a lower court ruling that extended the deadline in Wisconsin for voters to submit absentee ballots. “Extending the date by which ballots may be cast by voters — not just received by the municipal clerks but cast by voters — for an additional six days after the scheduled election day fundamentally alters the nature of the election,” said the court. Wisconsin had sought a deferment of the date to submit postal ballots due to a surge in applications for this alternative means of voting, as well as severe staff shortages and insufficient personal protection equipment. As citizens weigh the potential implications for personal health from gathering at the polling station and exercising their constitutional right to free suffrage, there is a growing danger of disenfranchisement of millions of U.S. voters.

An unpredictable election

It is possible to view Seoul’s general election either as a referendum on the government’s handling of the public health emergency or as a non-issue given that the country has fast returned to normalcy. Either way, President Moon Jae-in’s poll ratings, as also of his Democratic Party, have surged in recent weeks. The main opposition party, the conservative United Future Party, is reeling from the effects of the 2017 impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. The government’s handling of trade tensions with Japan following the raging controversy last year over Seoul’s demand for additional reparation for Japan’s Second World War atrocities have receded to the background.

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Yet, the ruling party cannot necessarily count on a comfortable majority, as surveys point to strong political partisanship among voters, as also large numbers of undecided voters. The strength of the mandate will crucially determine Mr. Moon’s ability to realise his aim of rapprochement with North Korea and to implement his unfinished social welfare agenda at the end of his single-term tenure in 2022.


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