The government resisted calls to postpone the parliamentary elections billed as a midterm referendum for the President amid a historic public health crisis that is unleashing massive economic shock.
While South Korea’s electorate is deeply divided along ideological and generational lines and regional loyalties, recent surveys showed growing support for Moon and his liberal party, reflecting the public’s approval of an aggressive test-and-quarantine program so far credited for lower fatality rates compared to worst-hit areas in China, Europe and North America.
“We are going through difficult times, but the coronavirus and politics are two different things,” 57-year-old Lee Kum said after voting in capital Seoul.
Globally, South Korea was one of the first countries to hold a national election since the coronavirus epidemic began, while many others postponed votes.
“I had worries as the election was not delayed, but having come here and seen for myself, I felt it’s good we did vote as planned, and people are taking greater caution about distancing and restraining themselves even more,” Choi Sun-hwa, 56, said outside a polling station in Hongje-dong, central Seoul.
Once grappling with the first large outbreak outside China, South Korea has largely managed to bring its cases under control without major disruptions thanks to a massive testing campaign and intensive contact tracing.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 27 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, bringing the total infections to 10,564. The daily tally has hovered around 30 over the past week, most of them from overseas travellers.
But authorities have warned that infections could resurge at any times, calling for special caution on Election Day.
To hold the parliamentary elections as scheduled, South Korean election officials and health authorities drew up a deliberate set of preventive measures to reduce risks of the virus being transmitted.
Duct tape or stickers marked social-distancing space from nearby streets to ballot booths. Masked poll workers checked temperatures of arrivals and whisked anyone with a fever or not wearing a mask to separate areas to vote, sanitising the facilities after they do. Voters who passed the fever screening got sanitising gel and disposable plastic gloves before entering booths to cast their ballots.
As of 9am, voter turnout was 8 per cent, about 0.9 percentage points higher than in the last parliamentary election in 2016, according to the National Election Commission. That excludes nearly 27 per cent of the 44 million registered voters who took part in early voting last weekend.
Among them were about 2800 coronavirus patients, for whom the NEC allowed voting by mail and set up special polling stations for early voting.
More than 13,000 in self-quarantine have signed up to vote and will be allowed to do so after other voters leave at 6pm.
The election campaign has taken on a different look, with candidates wearing masks and bumping fists instead of pressing the flesh and mass rallies.