South Korea’s Moon faces a referendum of public confidence at the polls

A South Korean woman casts her ballot for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul on April 15, 2020.

JUNG YEON-JE | AFP via Getty Images

As South Korea heads to the polls Wednesday for its legislative elections, the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, and his Democratic Party of Korea face a public vote of confidence, according to one expert that spoke to CNBC on Wednesday.

“As the South Korean constitution only permits a single five-year term presidency, the parliamentary elections coming just weeks ahead of president Moon’s three-year anniversary will be a kind of referendum of public confidence in his leadership and his progressive party,” Soojin Park, public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, told CNBC’s “Street Signs” on Wednesday.

The elections in South Korea come as authorities around the world have scrambled to stem the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. Globally, more than 1.97 million have been infected and at least 125,678 people have died, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University.

South Korea was the first country outside of China to see a major outbreak. But it has since received praise for its efforts to contain the disease, including widespread testing.

That has translated into a surge in Moon’s approval rating, a turnaround from previous criticism of his economic policies. That could bode well for him and his party at the polls.

“We’re betting on the idea that Moon’s rise in popularity recently on the back of the government doing a pretty good job of controlling the coronavirus there will translate into … more support for his party,” Scott Seaman, Asia director at Eurasia Group, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday.

Seaman explained the epidemic also gives Moon “more protection” against criticism of his economic agenda.

“A lot more of some of the downside risks and negative news that we see about the economy can be attributed to the coronavirus and not necessarily to the economic policies that (Moon’s) put in place,” Seaman said.

Voter turnout in the spotlight

Still, both analysts said voter turnout as well the choice of independents are “key” in determining the election outcome.

Seaman said there are many unaffiliated, independent voters that “may or may not go to the polls.”

“Voters are concerned about contracting the viral disease in the process of exercising their democratic rights,” Park said.

She noted, however, a survey conducted by Gallup Korea showed more than 70% of voters were willing to go to the polls. Early voting last week saw a record turnout of nearly 27% Park said, meaning that more than one in four of those eligible had already cast their votes.

“This may have been because voters wanted to avoid large crowds on the election day,” Park said. “Whether there will be higher voter turnout altogether remains to be seen.”

For his part, Eurasia’s Seaman said he anticipates lower turnout overall. Still, he said early indications like the number of people mailing in votes look “quite solid.”

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