A record number of South Korean voters cast their ballots during the two-day early voting period, demonstrating their strong will to have their say on who the next leader of the country will be. But a slew of disputes, including allegations of electoral fraud, broke out due largely to the election watchdog’s apparent failure to prepare for COVID-19 patients and poor management at the polling stations.
During the March 4-5 early voting period, more than 16.3 million, or 36.93 percent, of 44.2 million eligible voters cast their ballots, the National Election Commission said Saturday.
The record turnout in early voting for the 20th presidential election, slated for Wednesday, is a reflection of the unprecedented public interest in the tight race between Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and his main rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party.
The ruling party interpreted the strong turnout as a sign that Lee’s supporters are solidifying, particularly after Ahn Cheol-soo, the candidate of the minor People’s Party, dropped out of the race Thursday in support of Yoon Suk-yeol, a surprise move that could impact the final election results.
In contrast, the main opposition party claimed that a record turnout in early voting demonstrates the prevailing mood of a younger generation that was dissatisfied with the Moon Jae-in administration.
Either way, given the strong numbers, voters are willing to take part in the crucial election, even though Lee and Yoon -- both mired in personal scandals -- are the least popular pair of presidential contenders in decades.
It is regrettable that voters’ enthusiasm has been severely undermined by the heightened mistrust toward election authorities following early voting, as the NEC made serious mistakes that, in all fairness, could be avoided -- if sufficient preparation was made in advance.
The NEC earlier said it would set up separate waiting lines at polling stations for COVID-19 patients to prevent infections and carry out a transparent collection of their ballots. For all the assurances, early voting was hit by a number of hassles and disputes over delays at polling stations across the nation.
At the heart of controversy was a controversial, if not illegal, delivery of ballots. Even though there were separate waiting lines for COVID-19 patients, the NEC prepared just a single ballot box at each polling station, citing the election law. As a result, patients’ ballots were collected via plastic bags, paper boxes and other makeshift containers, before they were moved and inserted into the regular ballot boxes.
The seemingly irregular methods of collecting ballots raised doubts and suspicion among voters, some of whom claimed it was not a simple mistake.
Even though extra measures should have been set up to handle the special conditions caused by the pandemic, NEC Secretary General Kim Se-hwan claimed Saturday that early voting was held in accordance to regulations.
As criticism and claims of foul play mounted, the election watchdog officially apologized for its mismanagement but claimed that electoral fraud had not occurred, as all party representatives were allowed to monitor the early voting process.
Civic groups filed a complaint against top officials of the NEC Monday following revelations that COVID-19 patients were prevented from putting their votes into ballot boxes.
Noh Jeong-hee, chief of the NEC, was asked Monday by reporters about the mishandling of early voting but did not answer, adding she would focus on the main voting session on Election Day.
Noh and NEC officials are urged to take all possible measures to ensure a fair election process, especially concerning COVID-19 patients, if it wants to restore its damaged authority.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com