Korea lee polls
Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party, centre, speaks to the media at the party's office in the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Seoul: South Korea’s main opposition party and its allies were projected to win a majority in Wednesday’s elections for the country’s legislature, exit polls showed, in what would mark a significant blow to President Yoon Suk Yeol.

A joint poll released by broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS estimated that the opposition Democratic Party (DP) and its minor allies could secure between 178-197 seats in the single-chamber, 300-seat parliament, and Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) and its affiliates would win 85-105.

Another poll conducted by cable network JTBC showed the opposition camp was likely to get 168-193 seats, while it put the PPP coalition on 87-111.

The bitterly fought race was seen by some analysts as a referendum on Yoon, whose popularity has suffered amid a cost-of-living crisis and a spate of political blunders.

Official results are not expected to be released until the early hours of Thursday, but exit polls in previous elections have given a broadly accurate reflection of the results.

Nearly 29.7 million people, or 67% of eligible voters, had cast their ballots, according to the National Election Commission, including 14 million who had voted before election day.

korea polls
National Election Commission officials count ballots during the 22nd parliamentary election in Seoul, South Korea, April 10, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

It marked the highest ever turnout for a parliamentary election, though the numbers were down from the 2022 presidential vote that narrowly brought Yoon to power.

The exit polls indicated that the DP-led opposition, which already dominates the legislature, would beef up its majority but may fall short of securing a super majority of 200 seats.

With 200 votes the opposition would be able to override vetoes, amend the constitution, or try to impeach the president.

Even without hitting that threshold, the expected landslide victory could hamper Yoon’s policy efforts to boost the economy, reform the medical system and lift record low birthrates, as well as to bolster trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan.

A liberal splinter party led by former justice minister Cho Kuk, which has emerged as a dark horse, was projected in the polls to win up to 15 seats and to become a third-party force that could influence control of the assembly.

Opposition leaders have accused Yoon and the PPP of mismanaging the economy and failing to curb inflation, with Cho vowing to make Yoon a “dead duck” president through the elections.

PPP chief Han Dong-hoon, who had said an opposition majority would create a national crisis, said the exit polls were “disappointing” but said he is awaiting final results.

Democratic Party members burst into cheers when the poll results were announced, and its head Lee Jae-myung gave a faint smile, saying he would “watch till the end with a humble heart.” Cho said the numbers highlighted voters’ desire to hold Yoon’s administration accountable for what he called a “prosecutor dictatorship,” referring to Yoon’s previous role as prosecutor general.

Cho pledged to push for a bill to appoint a special counsel to look into alleged irregularities involving PPP chief Han’s family. Han has previously dismissed such allegations.

Cho himself has been convicted of fraud and is appealing against a two-year prison sentence. Lee has been indicted on separate charges of bribery, corruption, breach of trust and conflicts of interest.

Among those voting in the capital Seoul, Kim Ji-yun, 26, said Yoon’s government was on the “wrong path” and something needs to change.

Yoon, about to enter the third year of his five-year term, is not up for election this time but his ability to pass bills could be hurt by a poor PPP showing.

He has suffered low ratings for months, having come to power in 2022 vowing to cut taxes, ease business regulations and expand family support in the world’s fastest ageing society.

Kim Hyung-joon, a professor at Pai Chai University, said Yoon appears to have lost support from many middle-class, politically moderate voters due chiefly to his lack of communication with critics even as he rolled out publicly popular policies, including medical reform.

“Livelihood issues are at stake first and foremost, but his one-sided decision making attitude has complicated any policy’s soft landing and that seems to have backfired,” he said.

While Yoon has made it a top priority to strengthen security alliances with the US and Japan, foreign policy has not played significantly on the campaign trail and little change is expected on the diplomatic front whatever the result.

Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said Yoon might focus more on his overseas agenda now, though those plans could also be at risk if the opposition seeks to cut budgets with its majority.

“Given his likely lame duck status, the temptation for Yoon will be to focus on foreign policy where he will still have statutory power,” Richey said.