The race between South Korea’s two main presidential candidates has seen unprecedented levels of toxic rhetoric, slander and legal action.
How bad is that?
“Hitler”, “dumb” and “parasite” are some of the most chosen insults uttered by both sides. Some even call it “The Squid Game Election”, in reference to Netflix’s megahit survival drama where people are killed if they lose the kids games.
And the issues? There are many speculations that the loser will be arrested.
“It’s a terrible presidential election when the losing candidate faces jail. Please survive this dogfight in the mud!” senior opposition leader Hong Joon-pyo wrote on Facebook.
Just days before Wednesday’s election, Lee Jae-myung of the liberal ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk Yeol of the main conservative opposition People Power Party are locked in an extremely tight race.
Their negative campaigns are deepening South Korea’s already severe political divide at a time when it faces a struggling, pandemic-stricken economy, balancing competition between its main ally, Washington, and its main trading partner. , China, and a series of threats. and tests of weapons from rival North Korea.
Opinion polls show that both candidates have more critics than supporters.
“Isn’t our national future too bleak with an unpleasant and bitter presidential election that calls for choosing the lesser of two evils?” said the popular Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in an editorial.
Yoon slammed Lee for possible links to an allegedly corrupt land development scandal. Lee denied any connection and in turn tried to link Yoon to the same scandal, while separately criticizing him for his reported links to shamanism – an ancient indigenous religious belief.
There were also attacks on the candidates’ wives, who were both forced to apologize over separate scandals.
Yoon described Lee’s party as “Hitler” and “Mussolini” while an associate called Lee’s alleged aides “parasites”. Lee’s allies called Yoon a “beast”, a “dictator” and an “empty box” and mocked his wife’s alleged plastic surgery.
Their campaign teams and supporters have filed dozens of lawsuits for defamation and spreading false information, among other issues.
“This year’s presidential election has been more overwhelmed by negative campaigning than any previous election, and mutual hatred will not be extinguished easily after the election,” said Choi Jin, director of the Leadership Institute. presidential office based in Seoul.
Among the fault lines in the electorate are South Korean regional rivalries, views on North Korea, a conflict between generations, economic inequality and women’s rights issues.
Yoon is more popular with older voters and those in the southeast region of Gyeongsang, where former conservative and authoritarian leaders hail from. Its supporters generally advocate a stronger military alliance with the United States and a tougher line against North Korea, and they credit former authoritarian rulers with the rapid development of the economy after the Korean War.
Lee enjoys greater support from young people and those in Jeolla province, the rival Gyeongsang region in the southwest. Its supporters generally want a level playing field in relations with the United States and a rapprochement with North Korea, while being extremely critical of the former authoritarian rulers on human rights issues.
In a notable development, multiple surveys have shown that Yoon received higher approval ratings than Lee from voters between the ages of 18 and 29, most of whom were born after South Korea became a Developed country.
“They haven’t known poverty and dictatorships. … They’re very critical of China and North Korea, and they have pretty friendly feelings toward the United States and Japan,” he said. said Park Sung-min, director of Seoul-based MIN Consulting, a political consulting firm.
South Korea’s deep divisions are reflected in the problems of the last three leaders. Their supporters say intense investigations into corruption after they left office were politically motivated by their rivals.
During an investigation into his family’s corruption, former liberal president Roh Moo-hyun died in 2009, a year after leaving office. His successor, conservative Lee Myung-bak, and Lee’s conservative successor, Park Geun-hye, were convicted separately of a series of crimes, including corruption, and sentenced to long prison terms after entering according to Roh’s friend and current President Moon Jae-in. 2017.
Park was pardoned in December, but Lee is still serving a 17-year prison sentence.
Moon’s government has been hit hard by a scandal involving former justice minister and close Moon associate Cho Kuk. Cho and his family members allegedly participated in financial crimes and falsifying credentials to help Cho’s daughter get into medical school.
Cho was seen as a potential reformist and liberal presidential hopeful. Moon’s early attempts to keep Cho in power divided the public, with critics calling for Cho’s resignation and supporters rallying to his side in major street protests.
Yoon first served as Moon’s attorney general and led investigations into previous Conservative governments. But he eventually left Moon’s government and joined the opposition last year after a row with Moon allies over the Cho case helped him become a potential presidential candidate.
“Cho’s case was a turning point in South Korean politics. It made Yoon a candidate for president, and a lot of people in their 20s and 30s changed their support for Moon,” Choi said. director of the institute.
During a recent televised debate, Yoon and Lee agreed not to launch politically motivated investigations against the other side if they win. But some doubt their sincerity.
In a newspaper interview last month, Yoon said that if elected, his government would investigate possible wrongdoing by the Moon government as well as the land development scandal to which Lee was allegedly linked.
When Moon’s government conducted sweeping investigations into past conservative governments, Lee said they were necessary to root out “deep-rooted evils and injustice”.
Cho Jinman, a professor at Duksung Women’s University in Seoul, said a new president must exercise restraint and quiet calls for political revenge from hardliners.
“We now have an election race like ‘Squid Game,’ but it will be the responsibility of a new president to get us out of it,” he said.