Conservative opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol has narrowly won South Korea’s presidential election, marking a turning point for the world’s tenth-largest economy after a bitter and closely-fought campaign marred by allegations of corruption and sleaze.
Yoon, 61, a career prosecutor who entered politics just last year, edged out his rival Lee Jae-myung of the progressive Democratic party by a margin of less than 1 per cent with 98 per cent of votes counted. Lee conceded defeat in the early hours of Thursday morning.
“The race is over and now we need to be united as one for the sake of the people and the country,” Yoon told supporters and officials from the conservative People Power party.
Yoon’s victory follows an election campaign dominated by domestic economic and social issues, including a growing wealth gap, skyrocketing property prices and tensions over the status of women.
In line with previous conservative presidents, Yoon’s election will probably mark a less conciliatory approach towards China and North Korea, aligning Seoul more closely with Washington in its intensifying competition with Beijing.
In an article for Foreign Affairs published last month, he argued that “under President Moon Jae-in, dialogue with the North has become an end in itself”.
“Meanwhile, as US-Chinese tensions have grown, South Korea has failed to adapt, maintaining an approach of strategic ambiguity without stating a principled position,” Yoon wrote.
As a prosecutor, Yoon was instrumental in the imprisonment of former conservative President Park Geun-hye in 2018 on bribery and corruption charges.
He served as prosecutor-general in the administration of incumbent president Moon Jae-in, but fell out with the Democratic party after launching an investigation into his own justice minister over an alleged college admissions scandal.
Admirers see an independent-minded graft-buster willing to stand up to corrupt practices on both sides of South Korea’s rancorous political divide. But opponents accuse him of having used the prosecutor’s office to protect allies and pursue political vendettas.
Critics labeled his campaigning style “K-Trumpism”, after he praised a former authoritarian president responsible for the massacre of protesters as “good at politics”, and blamed feminists for South Korea’s low birth rate.
Karl Friedhoff, a Korea-based polling expert with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said that Yoon’s conservative supporters had been attracted by his strongman image and status as a political outsider.
“Those voting for Yoon were motivated by bringing a change in government – they were not so much interested in his policies, and that comes through in the data,” said Friedhoff.
Yoon, who will assume office in May and serve a single five-year term, will inherit an economy that grew 4 percent in 2021, South Korea’s fastest annual growth in 11 years, amid a record surge in exports.
Korean conglomerates have thrived from the global demand for exports ranging from semiconductors to cargo ships and electric vehicles. But concerns remain about rising inequality, household debt and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the country’s small and medium-sized businesses.
While advocating targeted government support for SMEs, Yoon has pledged to cap at below 60 per cent South Korea’s debt-to-GDP ratio, which has risen over the course of the pandemic from 37.6 per cent in 2019 to 47.3 per cent in 2021 and is projected to approach 60 per cent by 2025.
But he may struggle to govern effectively, as the Democratic party retains a supermajority in the South Korean national assembly after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 2020. In his acceptance speech, Yoon vowed to respect parliament and work with the opposition.