In addition to its significant economic and public health burden, the novel coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on political and electoral processes around the world. In particular, the pandemic has posed many challenges to elections planned for the spring and summer, and has led to major changes in how elections will be run. The 2020 Parliamentary election in South Korea that will elect all 300 members of the National Assembly is scheduled to occur as planned on April 15, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic (International IDEA 2020a; Kelly 2020). In contrast with South Korea, forty-nine countries and territories have decided to postpone their elections due to concerns about safety in polling stations in the midst of the pandemic (International IDEA Report 2020b). It is likely that the decision to continue with the election was due in part to South Korea’s success in controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus through widespread testing and strict social distancing measures (Sang-Hun 2020a). Indeed, South Korea has reported that approximately 70% of its citizens with COVID-19 have recovered from the disease and have been released from the hospital (Sang-Hun 2020a).
Even though South Korea’s election will continue on the same time frame as originally planned, the coronavirus outbreak has still had a significant impact on the election itself and the voting process. In order to protect people’s health and ensure people who are sick maintain the right to vote, the voting procedures have changed significantly from previous years (Sang-Hun 2020a). Individuals who were in treatment for COVID-19 were given the opportunity to vote early by mail between March 23-28 (Sang-Hun 2020a). Overall, the National Election Commission reported that 26.7% of registered voters chose to vote early in this election — the highest voter turnout in early voting in South Korea in recent elections (Hollingsworth and Seo 2020; Bicker 2020). The election commission has also set up temporary polling stations designed specifically for patients who were in treatment or in isolation (Sang-Hun 2020a; Hollingsworth and Seo 2020). Furthermore, individuals who are under self-quarantine will be able to vote in normal polling stations after 6pm (when the polling stations will close for the rest of the population) as long as they do not have a fever or respiratory symptoms (Tong-Hyung 2020; Bicker 2020). Measures are still being taken at normal polling stations to protect individuals who have not been infected and who are not in self-quarantine (Hollingsworth and Seo 2020; Sang-Hun 2020a; Bicker 2020; Tong-Hyung 2020). For example, voters all had their temperatures taken when they entered the polling station and those with a fever were sent to vote in a designated booth (Hollingsworth and Seo 2020; Sang-Hun 2020a; Bicker 2020).
Beyond shifting voting procedures, the pandemic has also impacted the nature of campaigning and the issues at the center of the election (Sang-Hun 2020a; Hollingsworth and Seo 2020). With restrictions on large gatherings and social contact in place, many methods campaigns use to talk to voters are no longer allowed (Hollingsworth and Seo 2020). While elections in South Korea are typically focused on relations with North Korea, economic plans and problems, and political corruptions, the primary driver of people’s vote choice in this election has been their approval or disapproval of the government’s approach to dealing with the pandemic (Sang-Hun 2020a). This shift in focus is expected to benefit the President Moon Jae-in’s political party, Democratic Party of Korea: last week, Moon Jae-in’s approval rating was up to 56%, compared to 41% in late January (Kasulis 2020, Sang-Hun 2020a). Indeed, after voting ended on April 15, the National Election Commission announced that the Democratic Party of Korea won 163 seats, the United Future Party (UFP) — the main opposition party — and its satellite party, the Future Korea Party, won a combined 103 seats, and a satellite party created by the Democratic Party of Korea won 17 seats (Sang-Hun 2020b). When combined with the seats from its satellite party, the Democratic Party of Korea will be close to a supermajority in the National Assembly (Tong-Hyung 2020). Without successfully controlling the epidemic, it is unlikely that the Democratic Party of Korea would have won as many seats during the election, as President Moon Jae-in’s support had fallen earlier this year as a result of a declining economy, political corruption scandals, and flawed diplomacy with North Korea (Tong-Hyung 2020; Blatt 2020; Sang-Hun 2020b).
In addition to the influence of the novel coronavirus on the election, South Korea’s 2020 election is also notable because it is the first election since the country lowered the voting age to 18 (from 19) and switched to a proportional representation system for 47 of the 300 National Assembly seats (Kasulis 2020; Kasulis 2020; Kelly 2020). Political parties must gain 3% of the national vote in order to be allocated any of the proportional representation seats (IFES Election Guide). The shift to proportional representation for some seats was intended to make it easier for smaller parties in South Korea to gain seats in the National Assembly (Yonhap 2019; Kasulis 2020). While the Democratic Party of Korea and the United Future Party are dominant in South Korean politics, there were candidates from thirty-five political parties competing in the election overall (Bicker 2020). However, it does not appear as though smaller parties were as successful with gaining the proportional representation seats as intended, which was likely due to the Democratic Party of Korea and the United Future Party creating their own satellite parties to win the proportional representation seats (Tong-Hyung 2020; Blatt 2020). Accordingly, it will be interesting to see if any further electoral reforms are made in the future in order to successfully achieve the goal of increasing political power of minor parties and moving away from a two-party system. Outside of the new electoral reforms, it is also important to note that this was the first election since President Park Geun-hye was impeached in 2017 (Kasulis 2020).
South Korea’s decision to continue with their election during the coronavirus pandemic could have a widespread impact on how other countries approach their elections in this pandemic and during future public health crises. If South Korea does not experience an increase in cases following the election, the measures election officials used could serve as a blueprint for other elections being held during this time period (Kim 2020). Of course, South Korea has also been more successful than many other countries at controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus, so other countries may be skeptical as to whether the methods used by South Korea will be enough to make voting safe in their countries (Normile 2020; Blatt 2020). While it is impossible to know what the election results would have been if the coronavirus outbreak had not occurred, the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent boost in Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings seemed to have significantly contributed to the success of the Democratic Party of Korea in the April 15 election (Blatt 2020).
Another important aspect of the 2020 election results is that the turnout rate (including both early voting and voting on election day) was 66.2%, making it the election with the highest turnout since 1992 (Kim 2020; Sang-Hun 2020b). In the 2016 National Assembly election, the turnout rate was only 58.03% (IFES Election Guide). This increase in turnout for the National Assembly election is surprising given the current circumstances. In a recent technical paper addressing the impact of the novel coronavirus on elections, International IDEA suggested the possibility of decreased turnout levels among citizens due to safety concerns, especially among those who are at higher risk of becoming severely ill from the coronavirus (International IDEA 2020b). The reported high turnout rate in South Korea may lead to other countries being more willing to continue to hold elections before the coronavirus is completely controlled. One question political scientists should address in the future is: why did turnout levels increase in South Korea when it was expected for the pandemic to lower turnout levels in elections? Political scientists should also examine whether the high turnout rate was driven by the recent electoral reforms (ie. lowering the voting age to 18 and shifting some National Assembly seats to a proportional representation system). It will also be interesting to see if turnout levels continue to remain high in future elections or if this election was an anomaly. Despite the high overall turnout, it is important to assess whether the coronavirus disproportionately impacts turnout levels among certain groups in the population, as the results of the election could be skewed to favor certain aspects of the population if that were the case (International IDEA 2020b). If turnout levels vary drastically across different groups of the population, the election may not be as democratic as the overall turnout might suggest. In particular, I believe it is important to examine the differences in turnout levels by age category given that this was the first election with a younger voting age and given older citizens were at higher risk of contracting coronavirus. Ultimately, I believe that the 2020 National Assembly Election in South Korea provides an interesting case study for an election occurring in the midst of a global pandemic and lessons from the election could assist other countries in taking measures to protect their citizens while continuing with voting in this time period (or a future public health crisis a country is facing). Furthermore, the election is important for political scientists because it differed from the pre-election predictions in both its failure to increase representation of minor political parties despite new electoral reforms and its increase in voter turnout levels despite health concerns.
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