Campaigning for South Korea’s presidential election officially began on Tuesday, in what is expected to be the tightest race in 20 years.
The ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung began his campaign at the stroke of midnight with a visit to a shipping control tower in the southeastern port city of Busan.
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The conservative People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol, Lee’s main rival, started his bid for office at the Seoul National Cemetery, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Opinion polls suggest voters are looking for a president who can address polarised politics and tackle corruption, as well as deal with soaring housing prices and deepening inequality.
But policy issues have so far been overshadowed by scandals and petty controversies, ranging from allegations of abuse of power to spats over one candidate’s relationship with a shaman and an anal acupuncturist.
In a field of 14 candidates, Lee and Yoon are the frontrunners with the latest opinion polls giving Yoon a slight lead.
“This is the foggiest election we’ve seen in a while, it’s very rare that a likely winner has yet to emerge just three weeks before the vote,” Bae Jong-chan, a political analyst who runs the Insight K think tank, told the Reuters news agency.
Yoon is a political novice but has gained popularity, thanks to his image as a staunch prosecutor-general who steered high-profile investigations into corruption scandals engulfing aides to former President Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president, and current President Moon Jae-in.
But growing frustration over mainstream politics and controversy involving both candidates’ families have helped boost the candidacy of Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul and doctor who is a minor opposition contender.
He began his campaign meeting voters in the conservative stronghold of Daegu and also plans to visit the birthplace of Park Chung-hee, an authoritarian former president and father of Park Geun-hye.
On Sunday, he offered to merge campaigns with Yoon, saying it would expedite an “overwhelming victory” and national unity.
Polls suggest Yoon and Ahn could win a convincing victory if they united.
Yoon said that he will give the proposal “positive consideration”.
The election on March 9 will be the first to give 18-year-olds the vote.
Amid a wave of Omicron cases, people diagnosed with COVID-19 and those in quarantine will be allowed to vote after regular polling closes. The country confirmed a record 57.177 cases on Tuesday.