South Korean voters on Tuesday elected a center-left presidential candidate, ending a decade of conservative-party rule following a historic corruption scandal and rising tensions on the peninsula.
Moon Jae-in, a lawyer and former presidential aide representing the center-left Democratic Party, declared victory just before midnight local time, pledging to restore the public’s faith in the country after a tumultuous six months that saw the ouster and arrest of the former president, Park Geun-hye.
“My fellow Koreans, I will not forget what you have asked for as a nation, as a people,” he said, speaking before a large crowd in a central square where protesters have gathered in recent months.
“I will work toward putting our country back on its feet and helping all of you realize your dreams, as Koreans.”
Turnout in the election was high, despite scattered rain showers, as nearly 80% of voters went to the polls to decide who would lead the country after Park’s impeachment and removal.
Moon, 64, who narrowly lost the last presidential election to Park in 2012, took the stage at his campaign headquarters not long after voting ended, sounding confident when addressing his supporters and party colleagues. He said he appeared headed to an “overwhelming victory” but also noted that the vote totals weren’t yet official.
Moon, 64, has consistently led in the snap election — which lasted just 60 days after Park’s ouster — in public opinion polls. A final survey showed him ahead with about 40% support in a crowded field of 15 candidates. A plurality is all that’s needed for victory.
While five candidates participated in televised debates, even fewer apparently had realistic chances at the presidency, even as they enthusiastically crisscrossed the country seeking portions of the more than 32 million votes cast in the election. Moon was always seen as the overwhelming front-runner given his pedigree and the dramatic drop in support for the conservatives after the Park scandal.
Under the circumstances, with Park jailed and the prime minister serving as a caretaker, Moon was expected to take office almost immediately. No elaborate inauguration is scheduled.
Moon’s ascension to the Blue House — South Korea’s presidential complex, named for its distinctly colored tile roof — should represent an ideological shift from two administrations of conservative policies, especially on foreign affairs.
He takes office at a perilous time for South Korea, which has dealt with the political fallout from the scandal but also a tense foreign policy period caused by increased military provocations by North Korea.
A series of slights by the Trump administration has also rattled the population, which has widely embraced an alliance relationship with the United States since the end of the Korean War. More than 28,000 American troops are stationed here to defend the country from a potential invasion by the North, a party to an uneasy truce signed after the conflict ended more than 60 years ago.
The nation’s relationship with China — a crucial trading customer and key counterpart in any solution to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions — is also problematic. That’s especially true after the announcement last year that the United States would install a defense missile system on the peninsula, raising national security concerns in Beijing.
Liberals like Moon have, in recent administrations, sought a more conciliatory, diplomatic policy toward the North, which has increased its nuclear and missile provocations dramatically in recent years. Conservatives have generally been more aligned with the Bush and Obama administrations, which sought to confront the North with pressure in the form of sanctions, military readiness or covert action.
Moon, for example, has questioned the decision by the Park administration and American officials to install the defensive missile system known as THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
The system is designed to protect parts of South Korea from the North’s advancing nuclear and missile capabilities, but it has also prompted economic retaliation by China, which has blocked tourism to South Korea and restricted access to its popular entertainment products, such as television shows.
None of these troubles will be swept away by Moon’s apparent victory — especially given that the National Assembly, which doesn’t change until 2020, will be composed of a majority of opposition parties and a minority ruling party.
“You’ve got all of these constraints externally, and none of that has changed,” said James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “A lot these constraints, both domestically and externally, are going to be challenging for him once he begins his term.”
Moon’s main competitors were Ahn Cheol-soo, a software entrepreneur turned politician and leader of the centrist People’s Party; and Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, a former governor who leads the remnants of Park’s once-formidable political wing, now known as Liberty Korea Party.
Hong, who had surged in opinion polls in recent weeks, said he “solemnly” accepted the results, saying he would be satisfied if his campaign helped rebuild political support for the conservative cause. Ahn also conceded defeat.
Others on the ballot were Yoo Seung-min of the conservative Bareun Party, which split with Park’s supporters over the impeachment; and Sim Sang-jung, a National Assembly member representing the more left-leaning Justice Party.
I will work toward putting our country back on its feet and helping all of you realize your dreams, as Koreans.
The election was always a long shot for the conservatives, who have for now lost their decade-long hold on power, both in the presidency and the legislative branch.
The troubles began in earnest last fall with revelations that led to Park’s impeachment in December, according to Gallup Korea, which surveys residents here about politics regularly.
In early October, Park’s political party — now known as Liberty Korea — had the support of about one in four South Koreans. By March that support had fallen to about one in 10 adults.
Moon’s party, known as the Democratic Party, capitalized. It had the support of 29% of the public in the fall, but that increased to about 43% by March.
Part of the difficulty this time for conservatives was a split over how long to support Park as her presidency began to unravel and South Koreans took to the streets for massive demonstrations not seen since protests prompted democratization in the 1980s.
A new political party, known as the Righteous Party, was formed by conservatives more open to the impeachment. Economist and National Assembly member Yoo Seong-min became its standard bearer in the election, drawing away from votes from the conservative frontrunner.
South Korea, like some other democracies, has a blackout period for public polling. The last released poll came on the Wednesday before the election, and it showed Moon dominating the race.
The poll by Realmeter showed that about 42% of voters favored Moon, while support for his two closest rivals — Ahn and Hong — was split at about 18% each.
Authorities say Park colluded with a confidante to extort some of the nation’s largest business. The allegations led millions of South Koreans to protest peacefully in the streets every Saturday for weeks before lawmakers impeached her in December. A constitutional court ruled in March that her removal was warranted.
She was jailed later that month on myriad corruption charges.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn — a political independent aligned with the conservatives — stood in as an interim head of state. He’s responded to North Korean missile tests, conducted cabinet meetings and fielded a call from Trump.
He decided against his own presidential run, however, leaving the conservatives with less-viable alternatives, Hong and Yoo. After voting on Tuesday, he told reporters, “Through this election there must be integration and harmony of the people’s will, and the opportunity for a just democratic society.”
The election prompted mass numbers of voters to cast their ballots early. By Election Day, roughly one in four South Koreans — about 11 million people — had voted.
Kim Donghwan, 22, from Seoul’s wealthy and relatively conservative Gangnam district, said he voted for Shim Sang-jeong, the liberal, who has grabbed the attention of younger voters.
He followed his views, not the taint of the Park scandal, in picking a candidate, including economic reform, gender equality and gay rights — all concerns that sometimes are ignored because of the geopolitical tension in the region.
But a key issue, Kim said, was a decade of harsh policies related to North Korea that haven’t worked. The country has steadily moved toward becoming an established nuclear power with an advancing technical capacity to deliver warheads with missiles from land and sea.
“Instead of continuing a stagnant relationship, I think we need to create room for conversation. I think the new administration needs to deal with North Korea through diplomatic negotiations,” she said.
Stiles is a special correspondent.
9:10 a.m.: This article was updated with Moon Jae-in delivering his acceptance speech.
8:05 a.m.: This article was updated with Moon Jae-in declaring victory.
6:45 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 5:20 a.m.