Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol wins South Korea’s presidential election

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SEOUL, March 9 (UPI) — With 95% of ballots counted Thursday, conservative Yoon Suk-yeol was declared the winner of South Korea’s presidential election, narrowly edging out liberal Lee Jae-myung.

Broadcaster KBS called the race for Yoon after the National Election Commission reported he had 48.6% of the vote over Lee’s 47.8%.

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Exit polls after voting ended Wednesday initially indicated the hotly contested race between a pair of unpopular candidates was too close to call.

Yonhap reported Yoon thanked his supporters outside his home in Seoul before heading to the People Power Party’s headquarters. Lee of the Democratic Party conceded the race in a statement.

“I did my best but failed to live up to your expectations,” he said. “All responsibility lies with me. I extend my congratulations to candidate Yoon Suk-yeol.”

Despite an ongoing COVID-19 surge driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant, turnout was strong Wednesday, with masked voters given hand sanitizer and clear plastic gloves to cast their ballots at some 14,500 polling stations around the country.

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A preliminary count estimated that 77.1% of the country’s 44 million eligible voters cast a ballot, just short of the 77.2% in the 2017 election that put outgoing President Moon Jae-in in office.

Pressing domestic issues including runaway housing prices, a fractious gender divide among younger Koreans and widening income inequality were at the top of voters’ concerns.

However, neither candidate personally resonated with the public during a campaign season that was dominated by scandals and mudslinging.

Many voters framed the race between Lee, the brusque 57-year-old former governor of Gyeonggi province, and Yoon, the 61-year-old former prosecutor-general with a penchant for verbal gaffes, as a choice between the lesser of two evils.

“Many of my friends don’t like anybody and didn’t want to vote,” Kim Bo-yeon, 26, said outside of a polling station in Seoul. “But I think it’s important, especially for young people. We have to find good jobs in the future.”

Kim said she was ultimately motivated by the progressive policies and the history of Lee’s incumbent Democratic Party.

“I am voting for the party, not for [Lee],” she said. “But I hope he will do a good job.”

Others wanted their ballot to express dissatisfaction with Moon’s administration, particularly on economic issues.

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“[Moon] wasn’t what I wanted,” said Cho Joo-ri, 29, as she lined up to vote.

She said some of Moon’s policies backfired, such as a minimum wage hike that sparked a revolt among employers and ultimately made it more difficult to find work.

Above all, for many younger voters, soaring real estate prices that Moon’s government never managed to corral remained the biggest issue on election day.

“It’s become impossible to imagine buying a place these days,” Cho said.

Both candidates have been also dogged by scandals large and small during their campaigns, some of which threaten to drag on after the election.

Lee faces allegations that he was connected to a corrupt real-estate development project while he was mayor of Seongnam. Yoon’s troubles include accusations that his wife was involved in manipulating stock prices, a case that is still under investigation.

Serious challenges await whoever takes office in May on the foreign policy front as well, with a resurgent North Korean nuclear weapons program looming and a deepening rivalry between the United States and China that Seoul will have to navigate.