The winner of the election will face mounting challenges including deepening inequality and surging housing prices that have strained Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
A total of 14 candidates initially registered, but it has shaped up as a tight two-way race between Lee Jae-myung, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party.
They are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. The winner’s single, five-year term is set to start on May 10.
Polls showed a slight edge for Yoon, who secured a surprise, last-minute boost last week when Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party, a fellow conservative running a distant third, dropped out and threw his support behind Yoon.
A survey by Embrain Public estimated the merger could give Yoon 47.4% to Lee’s 41.5%, while an Ipsos poll tipped the margin with Ahn at a slightly wider 48.9% to 41.9% for Yoon.
A former prosecutor general, Yoon has vowed to fight corruption, foster justice and create a more level playing field, while seeking a harder line toward North Korea and a “reset” with China.
Lee was governor of the country’s most populous province of Gyeonggi and shot to fame on the back of his aggressive coronavirus responses and advocacy for universal basic income.
Both candidates’ disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, mud-slinging and gaffes dominated what was dubbed the “unlikeable election.”
Yoon had apologised over his wife’s use of an inaccurate resume for teaching jobs years ago. He denied Democrats’ accusations that his mother-in-law made massive profits from land speculation and took out tens of billions of won in loans from a bank investigated by a prosecutor’s office where Yoon worked.
Yoon has also dismissed allegations from Lee’s campaign that Yoon’s wife had colluded with a former chairman of a BMW dealer in South Korea in rigging company stock prices.
Lee, for his part, has apologized for his son’s illegal gambling. He faces a potential criminal investigation over allegations he illegally hired a provincial employee as his wife’s personal aide, and that she misappropriated government funds through his corporate credit cards.
Lee and his wife have apologized for causing public concern and said they would cooperate with any investigation.
The race faced a number of disruptions, with the Democrat leader steering Lee’s campaign hospitalised on Monday after a rare attack during a rally.
And amid South Korea’s worst COVID-19 wave with more than 1 million treating at home, election authorities hurriedly tightened voting procedures for patients on Monday amid uproar over early voting irregularities over the weekend.