Record high early voting turnout invigorates both ruling and opposition parties

Posted on : 2021-04-05 17:17 KST Modified on : 2021-04-05 17:17 KST
Both the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition People Power Party claim the record high early voting turnout would work to their advantages in by-elections Wednesday
Employees at work at the CCTV center of the Seoul branch of the National Election Commission, which compiles video footage of all the city's polling stations. (pool photo)
Employees at work at the CCTV center of the Seoul branch of the National Election Commission, which compiles video footage of all the city's polling stations. (pool photo)

South Korea's National Election Commission announced Sunday that 2,497,959 of 12,161,624 eligible voters, or 20.54%, had taken part in early voting on Friday and Saturday in the by-elections. That was 1.14 points higher than the 19.40% early voting rate in a by-election on Oct. 29, 2014, which had been the previous record for early voting in by-elections.

The early voting rate was 6.17 points higher than by-elections in 2019 and 14.64 points higher than by-elections in 2017. It's lower than the early voting rate for the parliamentary elections in April 2020 (26.69%), but still higher than expected, considering that this year's by-elections are only held in Seoul and Busan.

The fact that many voters headed to the polls on a weekday and the weekend despite heavy rain has been taken as an encouraging sign by both the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition People Power Party (PPP). Both parties are offering favorable interpretations of the heavy turnout: the Democratic Party says it shows "shy progressives" coming out to the polls, while the PPP says it reflects the crystallization of public anger at the ruling party.

While the Democratic Party has been behind in a number of public opinion polls, it claims there are indications that sentiment is shifting on the ground, which it says has led to the strong turnout in early voting.

"The high early voting rate means that [voters] are starting to close ranks with the awareness that they need to vote 'Number 1' for the Democratic Party in order to move down the right path," said Park Young-sun, the Democratic Party's candidate for mayor of Seoul, during a press conference at the National Assembly.

Park related the story of a mother who told Park she'd voted for the Democratic Party. "I may be upset with the Democratic Party, but I can't teach my kids that it's OK for a candidate who lies to become mayor," Park quoted the woman as saying.

In contrast, the PPP, South Korea's main opposition party, said that the record-setting early voting rate expressed voters' anger who want to register their displeasure with the current administration.

"The highest-ever early voting rate in a by-election shows that voters' anger with the current administration has reached a peak. The torrential rain and concerns about infection with COVID-19 couldn't hold back voters determined to cast judgment on the administration and bring about change in their lives," PPP spokesperson Bae Jun-young said in a statement.

PPP mayoral candidate Oh Se-hoon made a similar claim. "I think that people are heading to polling places to send a warning message to the government," Oh said after casting his own early vote Saturday.

Many analysts think that the surge in early voting is driven by apathetic voters, many of whom are in the younger generation. For that reason, the dominant view is that a high early voting rate works in favor of the progressive camp.

When 1,000 voters in Seoul were asked whether they intended to vote early, 47.4% of Democratic Party supporters said they would, but just 24.4% of PPP supporters. Ipsos carried out the poll on Tuesday and Wednesday on behalf of the Joongang Ilbo, a South Korean daily newspaper.

But a number of polls have recently shown Oh with more than a 10 point lead over Park, including among people in their 20s and 30s. Believing they have a chance to win among the youth, the opposition leaders have personally taken part in early voting and urged their supporters to do the same. The question is how much of an impact this campaign had on conservative voters.

Analysts offer conflicting interpretations.

"While people in their 20s and 30s told pollsters they support Oh, I think it will take some time before they shift their partisan loyalty and actually vote for 'Number 2' [the conservatives] in the voting booth. It's unreasonable to say that an early voting rate that's even lower than during the parliamentary elections last year represents the consolidation of public anger," Eom Kyeong-young, director of the Zeitgeist Institute, told the Hankyoreh on Sunday.

"If anything, it seems that Democratic Party voters who feel compelled to vote have gone to the polls in large numbers," Eom said.

"Since recent polls have consistently shown that more voters want to punish the current administration, I think we can infer that there's a greater likelihood of 'angry voting,'" said Park Seong-min, CEO of a political consulting group called Min.

But Park noted that "it's most accurate to regard the annual bump in the early voting rate as showing that the system's growing maturity."

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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