South Korean ruling party wins vote held amid virus fears

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Lee Hae-chan, left, Chairperson of the Election Campaign Committee of the ruling Democratic Party, places a sticker onto one of the party's winning candidates' photographs for parliamentary election at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. South Korean voters wore masks and moved slowly between lines of tape at polling stations on Wednesday to elect lawmakers in the shadows of the spreading coronavirus. (Kim In-chul/Yonhap via AP)

SEOUL – South Korea's ruling liberal party secured a resounding victory in parliamentary elections that had the highest turnout in nearly three decades, despite the coronavirus forcing social distancing at polling places.

The ruling Democratic Party and a satellite party it created to win proportional representative seats combined to win 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, election officials said Thursday. Conservatives suffered their worst showing in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area in years.

The comfortable majority will likely embolden President Moon Jae-in’s government to pursue its key domestic and foreign objectives, such as reviving diplomacy with nuclear-armed rival North Korea, while it grapples with the pandemic that is shuttering businesses and threatening livelihoods.

Moon thanked the country’s “great people” for “giving strength to a government that’s fighting desperately to overcome a national crisis.”

More than 17 million South Koreans voted on Wednesday. When combined with the 11.8 million early and mailed-in votes, turnout was 66.2%, the highest since 71.9% turnout in a 1992 general election, the National Election Commission said.

The voting drew sharp contrasts with upended election cycles in the United States and Europe and possibly set an example for how democratic elections can be handled during the pandemic.

Health officials described the election as a crucial experiment as they discuss more sustainable forms of social distancing that allow for some communal and economic activity while containing the risk of infection. But they acknowledged it would take at least a week to assess the election’s impact on the epidemic.

While South Korea is just three years removed from mass protests that led to the ouster of Moon’s corrupt conservative predecessor, public displays of the country’s dynamic democracy were largely muted this year as candidates, wearing masks and gloves, avoided large rallies and handshakes.