South Korea’s virus response hands election victory to Moon Jae-in’s Democrats

The Left-leaning Democratic Party of President Moon Jae-in swept to a thumping victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections in South Korea. The government’s largely successful handling of the coronavirus outbreak was a decisive factor in reversing the fortunes of Moon and his political allies.

With most votes counted by midday Thursday, the Democratic Party had won 163 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly. Its current ally, the Platform Party, was expected to win 17 seats, giving the government a total of 180 seats. The opposition United Future Party was forecast to win 103 seats, according to exit polls

Among the newly elected parliamentarians was one, Thae Yong-ho, who defected from North Korea only four years ago. He claimed a seat representing Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam district.

The election was held under difficult conditions shaped by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Voters were required to clean their hands, wear gloves and masks and stay apart. Those with high temperatures, were separated and made to vote in freshly cleaned booths. Despite the inconveniences, the turnout was a record 66%, including a quarter of the population who used postal ballots.

Korea was one of the first places outside mainland China to record coronavirus infections and the daily increases soared to nearly 1,000 per day. But the country responded with widespread virus testing, aggressive contact tracing and strict quarantine procedures.

On Thursday, the country counted only 22 new coronavirus cases, the fourth consecutive day when the number of new infections was below 30. In total, South Korea has reported 10,613 cases and 229 deaths. There are now some 60,000 people in quarantine.

The sizeable majority for the Democratic Party – Moon’s presidency was not contested at this time – appears to mean a continuation of Moon’s reform agenda. He wants to increase police investigative powers, phase out nuclear power generation and drive income growth.

In the near term, the win is expected to mean speedy approval of Moon’s policies to cushion the economic impact of the virus outbreak. One measure is to pay $818 (KRW1 million) to all families where their income dips by more than 30%.

“We will do our best to win the war against the coronavirus and overcome the economic crisis so as to reward people’s support for us,” DP chairman Lee Hae-chan told Korean media.

The virus outbreak has wreaked havoc on the country’s film industry. Audiences started deserting cinemas from early February. Local movie “Search Out” was one of the first in several weeks to attempt a new release. It entered cinemas on Wednesday and took top place, with a miserable 5,100 tickets sold, worth $38,300 (KRW47 million, narrowly ahead of the Daniel Radcliffe-starring “Guns Akimbo.”