South Korea will go ahead with its parliamentary election next week as scheduled, even as political calendars around the world are seeing disruptions over the coronavirus pandemic.
On April 15, South Korean voters clad in face masks and gloves will elect 300 members of the National Assembly. Analysts predict the results could give a boost to President Moon Jae-in and his governing Democratic Party over their progress in handling the health crisis.
Support for Moon and the Democratic Party, which has the most legislative seats, has gradually grown over the past couple of months. Their approval ratings rose from 41% and 34% respectively in the last week of January to 56% and 41% in the first of April. Nearly 60% of respondents who approved of Moon's performance cited his successful response to the pandemic.
"The government's transparent, fast and aggressive approach won people's trust," says Park Si-young, head of political pollster WinG Korea. "The Moon administration had been perceived as lacking competence while having good intentions and attitude, but through this crucial moment for people's life and safety, it earned the image of competence," Park says.
The Democratic Party is campaigning for continued support it says is needed to overcome the crisis. In an interview on Monday, Lee Keun-hyung, who leads the party's Strategic Planning Committee, characterized the upcoming election as "aerial refueling."
The main opposition United Future Party argues the election should be a "verdict" on the president and his party, whom it accuses of failing to protect small businesses from the economic impact of the pandemic.
Park says the conservative UFP, which had 23% support in last week's Gallup poll, faces grim prospects, with few counterarguments to discredit the liberal Democratic Party. "North Korea has not been provocative in recent days," he says, "and Moon's relationship with Trump has been good."
For both parties, though, the pandemic poses unprecedented challenges. The typically festive, crowded rallies and incessant handshakes in political campaigns have given way to a somber atmosphere and quarantine.
The National Election Commission had to urgently devise safeguarding measures against the virus. In addition to mandatory masks and gloves, voters will also be checked for temperature and sprayed with hand sanitizer when they show up to cast ballots. Some confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients will be allowed to vote from home or hospitals.
But voting limitations seem inevitable. Election authorities suspended many overseas polling centers ahead of schedule, which affected over half of the 171,959 voters registered abroad.