A woman walks past posters of candidates for the upcoming March 9 presidential election in Seoul, South Korea, March 7, 2022.
A woman walks past posters of candidates for the upcoming March 9 presidential election in Seoul, South Korea, March 7, 2022. Reuters / KIM HONG-JI

Some 44 million South Koreans headed to polls to elect the country's next president on Wednesday, capping a race that has been marked by a series of surprises, scandals and smear campaigns.

The winner of the election will face mounting challenges including dealing with the effects of South Korea's worst COVID wave, deepening inequality and surging housing prices that have strained Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Voters are also looking for a leader who can root out corruption, heal the divided nation and polarised politics, and kick-start negotiations to curb North Korea's evolving nuclear threat.

A total of 14 candidates initially registered, but it has shaped up as a tight two-way race between Lee Jae-myung, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon Suk-yeol, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party.

They are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. The winner's single, five-year term is set to start on May 10.

Polls last week showed a slight edge for Yoon, who secured a surprise, last-minute boost last week when a fellow conservative running a distant third dropped out and threw his support behind Yoon.

A survey by Embrain Public estimated the merger could give Yoon 47.4% to Lee's 41.5%, while an Ipsos poll tipped the margin with Ahn at a slightly wider 48.9% to 41.9% for Yoon.

In the absence of opinion polls for the past six days, Yoon's camp said on Monday it expected to win with a 10% margin, while Lee's team predicted it would come out on top by 1-2%.

A former prosecutor general, Yoon has vowed to fight corruption, foster justice and create a more level playing field, while seeking a harder line toward North Korea and a "reset" with China.

Lee was governor of the country's most populous province of Gyeonggi and shot to fame on the back of his aggressive coronavirus responses and advocacy for universal basic income.

Both candidates' disapproval ratings matched their popularity as scandals, mud-slinging and gaffes dominated what was dubbed the "unlikeable election."


South Korea reported a record daily high 342,446 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, but the surge of infections has barely registered as an election issue, beyond some debate over how to compensate citizens and businesses.

With more than 1 million COVID patients treating at home, election authorities hurriedly tightened voting procedures for patients on Monday amid uproar over early voting irregularities over the weekend.

During Saturday's special early voting for infected voters, some election workers collected ballots and carried them in shopping bags or plastic buckets to place in ballot boxes, and some voters reported receiving papers that had already been used.

Officials said there was no evidence of foul play, but the chaos threatened to tarnish South Korea 35-year democratic history of tight and relatively transparent management of elections, and a mostly successful fight against COVID-19.

The race has already faced a number of disruptions, with the Democrat leader steering Lee's campaign hospitalised on Monday after a rare attack during a rally.