Lesser of Two Evils: South Korean 2022 Presidential Election

On March 9, 2022, South Korea’s unitary presidential republic will hold its 20th presidential election. The South Korean constitution limits its president to a single five-year-term, which prevents the incumbent Moon Jae-in from running again. Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and Yoon Seok-youl of the People Power Party (PPP) are the leading candidates in this presidential election. Other candidates include Sim Sang-jeung of the left-wing Justice Party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party.

However, recent polls reveal an indecisive nation disillusioned by the possible presidential candidates and frustrated with the prospects of their administration. While the leading candidates continue to spend most of their time and energy publicly attacking each other in order to gain an electoral advantage, South Koreans are stuck choosing between “the lesser of two evils.”

Korea Society Opinion Institute’s survey, conducted in mid-December,  found that Yoon had a rating of 42%, whereas Lee had 40.6% (the difference between their ratings is within the poll’s +/- 3.1% margin of error, thus demonstrating how tight their race is). Yet, another poll conducted by Channel A on December 1 showed that more than 50% of respondents disliked both candidates.

These numbers make it difficult to predict the outcome of the election, yet there are some factors that may play a critical role in influencing the election result. Firstly, corruption allegations, faced both by Lee and Yoon, might influence the course of the election. An extensive land development scandal has been linked to Lee during his time as governor of Gyeonggi Province. Yoon, during the course of his tenure as prosecutor-general, has been accused of engaging in political meddling. Both candidates have requested investigations into the above cases. In spite of this, neither party has taken any action to conduct an investigation. These investigations should take place before the elections, as the results may significantly change the outcome of the election.

Another factor which may change the results of the elections is the possibility of a leading candidate forming an electoral alliance with a smaller party’s candidate. Lee would likely seek the support of the Justice Party’s Sim, and Yoon with that of the People’s Party’s Ahn. Nevertheless, this is not an entirely likely scenario, as Ahn’s and Sim’s main goal is to dislodge the front runners from their positions of power.

Lastly, it is critical for Lee and Yoon to secure unity within their own respective parties, with both candidates facing internal party conflicts. For one, Lee’s rating dropped 13.9% (from 63.3% to 49.4%) in the southwestern Honam region, where the DP party is dominant. It is believed that this decline was caused by anger among supporters of the former prime minister Lee Nak-yon, Lee’s runner-up, whose appeal against the primary results was rejected by the DP. A newcomer to politics, Yoon had issues with Lee Jun-seok, his party’s leader. The latter believed Yoon was casting him aside. Despite the hostilities, both Yoon and Lee took the time to publicly address the issue in hopes of resolving it.

A shrewd leader and an adept politician are phrases which do not describe any of the candidates. South Korea wants a president who will end corruption, strengthen the roots of democracy, and address important social issues. As a result, in the “most distasteful” election in South Korea’s history, the voters have no choice but to choose between bad and worse.

By: Ani Bayramyan

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