A year ago today, Park Geun-hye probably would have had no idea how May 9 2017 would unfold. She would’ve imagined carrying out her official duties as president, albeit a lame duck president. She would’ve been thinking about the presidential election that would take place in December 2017, and about herself stepping down in February 2018.
Instead, the Choi Soon-sil corruption saga blew into one of South Korea’s biggest political scandals, eventually ousting Park from power just two months ago. South Korea leaped into a condensed 60-day presidential race, and on May 9, the final day of the race, Park Geun-hye is sitting in a cell in Seoul, along with Samsung’s de facto head Lee Jae-yong, her confidante Choi Soon-sil, and many other prominent figures.
The rest of the country has largely forgotten about her — at least for today. Today, May 9 2017, is election day. It’s the day for the 13 presidential candidates, for the uncertain future of the country, but mostly, for South Korean voters.
I talked to 15 voters in Seoul, curious about who they voted for and why. Seoul is South Korea’s largest metropolis with a population of over ten million. Politically speaking, it’s neither distinctly here nor there: In the 2012 presidential election, votes for then-leading candidates Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in were generally close in all the districts.
Here are the snapshots of some of the voters:
“I hope he keeps his promise of a world where ordinary people who obey the law have a trouble-free life,” Min said.
I saw people of all generations — from young dads holding their children’s hands to octogenarian women — come to the polling stations to cast their ballots.
As of six p.m, twelve hours after the polls first opened, voter turnout nationwide averaged over 70 percent (in 2012, the final turnout was 75.8 percent).
“To be honest, I don’t like any of the candidates,” Jeong said. “None of them are handsome and dignified like the U.S. president. But God will bring success to the candidate I trust, and since I can’t waste my vote, I voted.”
In 2012, Gangnam voted slightly higher for conservative candidate Park Geun-hye, whose Saenuri Party has now splintered into three parties, in the aftermath of Park’s political scandal. The leading conservative candidate for this election is Hong Joon-pyo, who is trailing far behind front-runner Moon Jae-in.
“I don’t like the left,” said Kim, who was sitting alone in front of a convenience store near Dongdaemun (a district that voted slightly more in favor of liberal Moon in 2012). Kim said he voted for Hong Joon-pyo today, but thought it would be a miracle if Hong was elected. Like many others, Kim predicted a Moon victory.
To Kim, Moon Jae-in was as corrupt as any other politician. He was also critical about Park Geun-hye’s ouster, claiming that the scandal was the fault of Park’s “leftist aides.” Having fought in the Korean War, he didn’t think the country would fare well, in general, if the left gained power. This is a typical criticism echoed by conservative voters, who condemn the liberals’ softer stance toward North Korea.
“I want the new president to make this society more just for our kids,” said Lee, who came to vote with his young son.
Most of the voters I spoke to said they had voted for progressive candidate Moon Jae-in — expectedly, since Moon has been leading the polls by a wide margin. Those that did not vote for Moon still expected him to win.
“I really hope there’s a change in administration [from conservative to liberal],” Kim said. “From a young person’s perspective, I’m not exactly sure how unemployment and school tuition will be tackled. But I chose Moon because I hoped that he might promote better welfare policies.”
“I voted for Sim Sang-jung,” said Choi. “It takes courage to listen to the minorities, those without a voice. I think Sim is the only candidate who can listen to the voices of women, sexual minorities and the disabled, and actually reflect it in her policies.”
Sim is the only presidential candidate who openly endorses LGBT rights. In a recent presidential debate, Moon Jae-in — a former human rights lawyer and a self-professed liberal — incited outrage from many progressive voters for declaring, “I oppose homosexuality. I don’t like it.”
“The next president must reform the constitution and introduce a cabinet system to reduce presidential power,” said Lee, voicing a bipartisan criticism toward South Korea’s heavily centralized presidential system, which many say allowed Park Geun-hye to bypass the law to curry favors for her friend and the country’s top conglomerates, like Samsung.
Despite having voted for different candidates, many people expressed similar ideas about what makes a competent leader and how the coming president should run the country. They wanted someone free of corruption; they wanted a fair and just society; and they wanted a president they could communicate with.
Park Geun-hye’s ouster was often perceived internationally as the “triumph of South Korea’s democracy.” But it’s too soon to tell — let’s see what kind of changes the new president will be capable of.
All images in the article were taken by Jieun Choi for Korea Exposé.
Read more about the crazy past few months that was South Korea’s presidential election season: