With the nation more politically engaged than ever after months of turmoil, South Koreans turned out in droves to elect their new president Tuesday, pushing voter turnout to the highest level in recent decades.
At 3 p.m., nine hours after polls opened and with five hours left to vote, turnout had reached 63.7 percent, according to the National Election Commission.
“We are expecting the final turnout to be around or over 80 percent, with record-high turnouts from previous overseas and early voting,” an official from the National Election Commission told The Korea Herald. “Also, this year, the polls open two hours longer than the 2012 presidential election, expecting to attract more voters.”
If the final turnout hits 80 percent, it would be the highest since 1997, added the commission. In the previous 2012 presidential election, the final turnout was 75.8 percent.
A higher turnout was widely expected as last week’s two-day advance voting had already drawn over 10 million people to the polls -- or over 26 percent of the entire electorate.
Political watchers say the enthusiasm reflects the public’s heightened interest in the country’s young democracy, which is still deemed fragile, after a series of political events that culminated in the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye.
Tuesday’s election is a by-election to fill the void in the presidential office left by Park.
Early voting could also have played a part in boosting the turnout. Many voters praised the newly-adopted system, when asked by The Korea Herald.
“I had to go to work today, so I voted last week. If I didn’t do it earlier, it wouldn’t have been able to at all,” said Park Ho-se, 28, who works in Busan.
Voting was allowed at some 3,500 polling stations across the nation on Thursday and Friday. The turnout was higher than expected --- 26.06 percent.
Early voters said due to this “brilliant system,” Election Day has become an extra holiday for them. Many said they enjoyed their day -- sleeping late, resting and hanging out with friends and family.
“I think I am going to see my friends today. It is better to vote earlier because then I have the whole free day to myself without having to do something,” said Lee Doo-bin, a 32-year-old office worker.
“A voting booth happened to be near where I work during the early voting period, so I just did it. It was very convenient and simple.”
As of 2 p.m., 59.9 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, including 26.06 percent of those who participated in last week’s early voting as well as the votes of overseas Koreans.
Lee Chan-ho, 42, said he felt “very lighthearted” as he had already voted. “I am enjoying my day while doing a little bit of work I should get done. I will go for a walk in the afternoon.”
A total of 42.48 million people, or 82 percent of South Korea’s population, were eligible to vote in the election. Ballots were to close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, with the results expected to take shape at around 2-3 a.m. on Wednesday, the commission said.