S Korea presidential poll: Choosing the lesser of two evils

Neither of the front-runners in the race has won public trust that he can resolve South Korea’s many problems.

The South Korean elections will be held in March 2022 [File: AP/Lee Jin-man]

South Korea’s presidential election, scheduled for March 9, 2022, appears to have become a duel to the death between Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and Yoon Seok-youl of the main opposition conservative People Power Party (PPP). Third-party candidates to the presidency, such as Sim Sang-jeung of the left-wing Justice Party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party, do not have nearly enough support to clinch the top role.

Yet neither Lee, nor Yoon is offering South Koreans a clear vision for the future of the country – most importantly, they do not seem to have concrete policy proposals to protect South Korean livelihoods amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they are spending most of their energy on attacking each other – the two candidates have repeatedly accused each other of corruption and even suggested that their rival “will go to jail” after the election.

It is therefore no wonder that most South Koreans appear to be less than enthusiastic about the election, with many stating they have no option other than voting for the candidate they perceive as “the lesser of two evils”. Recent polls are also painting a picture of an undecided nation frustrated with the choices on offer.

A nationwide poll conducted by the Korea Society Opinion Institute over Dec 10-11,  for example, determined that Yoon had an approval rating of 42 percent against Lee’s 40.6 percent (with the 1.4 percent difference between the candidates being well within the poll’s +/- 3.1 percent margin of error). Meanwhile, in a Channel A poll conducted on December 1, more than 50 percent of respondents said they disliked both Lee and Yoon.

Therefore the outcome of the election is still very much up in the air. There are, however, certain factors that can help voters decide which candidate is indeed the “lesser of the two evils”.

One factor that will likely play an important role in determining the outcome of the election is the corruption allegations faced by both Lee and Yoon (as well as the misdeeds of their relatives). Lee, former governor of Gyeonggi Province, has been linked to a massive land development scandal there. Yoon, meanwhile, is alleged to have engaged in political meddling while serving as prosecutor-general.

Yoon proposed and Lee agreed to have a special counsel probe both allegations. But neither the ruling DP nor the opposition PPP yet took the necessary steps to start the process – the parties seem to be merely paying lip service to the calls for independent investigations into their candidates’ conduct. While there is no certainty that these investigations will go forward before the election, if they do, either Lee or Yoon, or both, could be forced out of the race depending on the findings.

Possible alliances Lee and Yoon may form with third-party candidates is another factor that can help determine the outcome of the election. Indeed, if the race remains as tight as it is now in the new year, third-party candidates can become kingmakers by putting their support behind Yoon or Lee. Lee would likely seek the support of Justice Party’s Sim, and Yoon that of People’s Party’s Ahn. But as both third-party candidates started their campaigns with the aim of shaking the two main parties’ dominance in the election, formation of any such alliance is less than certain.

In this context, another crucial factor in determining who will win the March election will be Yoon and Lee’s ability to secure unity within their own respective parties.

After Lee’s nomination in October, the ruling DP’s approval rating dropped 13.9 percentage points,(from 63.3 percent to 49.4 percent) in the southwest Honam region, a historic stronghold of the DP. This drop was largely due to widespread anger among supporters of former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, Lee’s runner-up in the nomination primaries, whose appeal against the primary result was rejected by the DP. Although Lee Nak-yon eventually conceded defeat, Lee still needs to secure party unity. To achieve this, he will have to include Lee Nak-yon into his campaign in some form, for he still commands vast DP support in the Honam region, and has widespread personal appeal to centrist middle-class voters, especially in Seoul.

As a newcomer in politics, Yoon also initially faced an uphill battle to secure the support of all factions within his party, largely due to a months-long public conflict between him and the party leader, Lee Jun-seok, over election preparations, with Lee signalling that he feels as if he is being sidelined in the process. However, this conflict has been resolved earlier this month, with Lee and Yoon jointly addressing the issue. Yoon later brought in Kim Chong-in, a well-known political strategist, to lead his election committee with the apparent approval of the party leader. Yet many analysts warn the power struggle between the party leader and the presidential candidate can resurface in a different form in the coming days.

All in all, neither Yoon nor Lee has emerged in this race as a skilful politician who can resolve South Korea’s many problems as president. The biggest obstacle to their success appears to be the voters’, especially young voters’, disillusionment with them and their parties. Indeed, despite countless scandals and failures, the two main political parties in the country hardly changed their approach to politics or developed inspiring new policies that can steer the nation through numerous internal and external difficulties.

This disillusionment already led young voters to revolt in the April mayoral elections and deliver a crushing defeat for the ruling DP. And around the same time, the annual Korean Society Dissatisfaction Survey conducted by Seoul National University showed that six out of 10 Koreans – more than 58 percent of the population – are in a state of “chronic anger” primarily due to “the immorality and corruption of political parties”.

With most Koreans still drowning under household debt, and prominent politicians including presidential candidates showing no clear plan to get them back on their feet, the public’s anger towards the political class is still as strong as ever before.

South Koreans, especially young voters, want a leader who will increase social mobility and bring an end to their financial struggles. They also want a leader who will end corruption and make South Korean society more just and fair. While many voters believe neither Yoon nor Lee can be that leader, they will watch their moves closely in the coming months, and eventually vote for the candidate who they decide is the “lesser of the two evils”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.