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[Editorial] Key factors

Spreading omicron, mistrust of early voting, Ahn’s withdrawal to affect election

March 4, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald
With just four days left before the March 9 presidential election, several hot-button issues are expected to impact voters, with no clear sign yet of an undisputed front-runner.

A two-day period of early voting starts Friday, a crucial period that could reshape the outcome of the election for the country’s next leader. As the number of daily coronavirus cases have stayed at around 200,000 due to the highly transmissible omicron variant, more voters are forecast to cast their ballots in advance to avoid the crowds and minimize exposure to the virus.

In the 2017 presidential election, the early voting rate was 26.06 percent. The figure for the March 4-5 early voting could surpass 30 percent, some experts predicted, stressing its significance ahead of the election day.

There is no doubt that early voting is crucial for both Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and Yoon Suk-yeol, the rival candidate of the main opposition People Power Party -- the two main candidates staging a neck-and-neck competition.

The ruling party, in particular, is keen to encourage more voters to opt for early voting since its key support groups -- those in their 40s and 50s -- are willing to cast their ballots in advance.

The main opposition party also believes early voting is key. Yoon Suk-yeol deems those in their 20s and 30s as important voter groups that can boost his chances at winning the election, and would help drive a higher turnout among the younger generations overall.

However, there are some voters and political observers who have doubts about early voting. Conspiracy theories about manipulation and allegations of foul play in the 2020 general elections have kept circulating on social media.

On Tuesday, the National Election Commission filed complaints against Hwang Kyo-ahn, the former leader of the United Future Party, a precursor to the PPP, and former lawmaker Min Kyung-wook, who raised suspicion about early voting manipulation. The two figures allegedly encouraged people to stay away from early voting due to the possibility of manipulation.

Steps to dispel public mistrust about early voting are important to ensure fairness, but the move by the election watchdog came too late.

Another problematic rumor among supporters of the main opposition party is that the ruling party may implement illicit measures to discourage voters from heading to the polls, citing the surge in omicron-led virus infections, to affect the outcome. This conspiracy theory is groundless, but there is a real concern that a spike in infections could influence the voter turnout in a meaningful way. The government forecast the number of new cases would stand at around 230,000 on election day.

Health authorities should take extra measures to rein in the spread of the omicron variant as the COVID-19 situation is closely linked to the presidential election -- during both early and main voting sessions.

Another important factor to consider is the surprise dropout of Ahn Cheol-soo, the candidate of the minor People’s Party, from the presidential race Thursday. He declared his support for Yoon Suk-yeol in a last-minute deal to merge candidacies. Since the deal came on the eve of early voting, observers say it is likely to boost Yoon’s chances in an extremely tight competition with ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung.

Given the volatile factors, the election watchdog is urged to take all possible steps to prevent foul play and at the same time stem groundless rumors so voters can make their own choices for the next leader of the country.