South Korea’s opposition presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol was projected to win Wednesday’s election, broadcaster KBS said, with nearly 90 percent of votes counted, a race that will shape Asia’s fourth-largest economy for the next five years.
Conservative Yoon, with 48.6 percent, was slightly ahead of liberal Lee Jae-myung on 47.8 percent, with more than 89 percent of the ballots counted as of 2.30 a.m. on Thursday (1730 GMT Wednesday).
KBS put Yoon’s probability of winning the election at about 95 percent.
The unusually bitter election campaign was marred by scandals and smears, but the policy stakes are high for the country of 52 million.
Around 77 percent of South Korea’s 44 million eligible voters cast ballots to pick the leader of a nation whose global status is rising even as it has been riven by gender and generational divisions, while facing a confrontational North Korea.
The winner must tackle challenges including South Korea’s worst wave of COVID-19 infections, growing inequality and surging home prices, while navigating an increasingly tense rivalry between China and the United States.
Voters also want the new president to root out graft and pursue negotiations to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Lee, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party, are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.
An exit poll jointly conducted by KBS and two other major broadcasters had shown Yoon’s 0.6 percent lead with 48.4 percent, and another one by cable network JTBC put Lee ahead with 48.4 percent to Yoon’s 47.7 percent.
The exit polls suggested Lee had performed better than expected. Surveys last week had given Yoon the edge after he secured the support of a fellow conservative who had been trailing a distant third and then quit the race.