South Korea’s presidential election appears to have produced a dead heat between the two main candidates vying to lead the country for the next five years, according to exit polls.
Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, with 48.4 percent, is slightly ahead of liberal Lee Jae-myung, with 47.8 percent, an exit poll jointly conducted by three television networks showed on Wednesday after voting ended.
Another poll by broadcaster JTBC showed Lee ahead with 48.4 percent, to Yoon’s 47.7 percent.
Election officials earlier said vote-counting may take longer than usual because of the extended voting time for COVID-19 patients patients and that the winner may not be clear until early Thursday.
Voter turnout was 77.1 percent, with record early voting. About 44 million South Koreans aged 18 or order were eligible to vote, out of the country’s 52 million people. About 16 million cast ballots during early voting last week.
The two candidates spent months slamming, mocking and demonising each other in one of the most bitter political campaigns in recent memory, aggravating the country’s already severe domestic divisions.
South Korea’s next president will face mounting challenges, including deepening inequality, a rock-bottom birth rate, surging house prices and the effects of the country’s worst wave of COVID-19 infections.
They would also have to navigate an increasingly tense rivalry between China and the United States, while also dealing with the threat of nuclear-armed North Korea.
Lee, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party, are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.
A win by the conservative opposition would represent a remarkable turnaround for a party that was in disarray after the last election in 2017, held early after the impeachment and dismissal of President Park Geun-hye.
Moon’s liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, is fighting to protect and continue his agenda, and also to head off threats by Yoon to investigate the outgoing president’s administration for corruption if elected.
The two presidents before Moon, including Park, were imprisoned after they left office. Moon faces no specific allegations of wrongdoing, but his administration faced several major corruption scandals among top officials.
Polls last week showed a slight edge for Yoon, who secured a surprise, last-minute boost when a fellow conservative running a distant third dropped out and pledged his support to Yoon.
The winner of Wednesday’s vote will take office on May 10 and serve a single five-year term as leader of the world’s 10th largest economy.