South Korea election: Polls open to choose new president

  • As World leaders congratulate Emmanuel Macron on poll victory, EU breathes sigh of relief

South Koreans are voting in a presidential election, called early after a huge corruption scandal brought down their former leader.

Left-leaning Moon Jae-in is the clear front-runner with centrist Ahn Cheol-soo his nearest challenger.

The election is being closely watched at a time of economic uncertainty and heightened tensions with North Korea.

Mr Moon wants to increase contact with the North in contrast to ex-leader Park Geun-hye who cut almost all ties.

Observers are expecting a high turnout at the ballot boxes, with numbers boosted by younger voters, as South Koreans choose from 13 candidates.

Polls close at 20:00 local time (11:00 GMT), with the winner expected to be announced soon after.

All the candidates are promising to protect the fragile recovery in South Korea’s economy – the fourth largest in Asia – and to bring down youth unemployment, which remains stubbornly high.

There are also promises to rein in perceptions of elitism in South Korean political society and reform the family-run conglomerates – chaebols – which dominate the domestic economyBut heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula in recent weeks have also made the perennial concern of domestic security a key election concern.

Mr Moon, of the Democratic Party of Korea, has advocated greater dialogue with the North while maintaining pressure and sanctions.

He has been critical of the two previous conservative administrations for failing to stop North Korea’s weapons development.

Conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party however has attacked Mr Moon’s approach, saying on Thursday morning that the election was a “war of regime choices”.

In the meantime, world leaders on Monday largely hailed the thumping victory of Emmanuel Macron in France’s presidential election, with the EU nations breathing a sigh of relief and describing it a triumph for a strong and united Europe.

Independent centrist Macron, 39, became France’s youngest-ever president after crushing the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff yesterday.

US President Donald Trump congratulated Macron on his “big win” and said he looks forward to working with the centrist leader, in an attempt to leave behind the tacit support he had offered to his main rival Marine Le Pen ahead of the polls.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is currently negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union, also congratulated Macron.

“I warmly congratulate Emmanuel Macron on his success and I look forward to working with him on a wide range of shared priorities,” she said.

“The leaders briefly discussed Brexit and the Prime Minister reiterated that the UK wants a strong partnership with a secure and prosperous EU once we leave,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Macron, saying China and France shared a “responsibility toward peace and development in the world.”

“China stands ready to work with France to move the strategic Sino-French partnership to a higher level,” he said.

Leaders of the 28-nation European Union, from which Le Pen said she wanted to remove France, were explicitly effusive in their congratulations. The EU nations expressed relief that France had proven not to be the next domino to fall after Britain’s Brexit vote.

“Happy that the French chose a European future. Together for a #Europe more strong and more just,” Europe,” tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker.

The European Council President went even further and said, “Congratulations to Emmanuel Macron, the French who chose freedom, equality and fraternity and said no to the tyranny of the ‘fake news'”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described his victory as “a victory for a strong and united Europe and for French- German friendship.”

“He carries the hopes of millions of French people, and of many people in Germany and the whole of Europe,” the German chancellor told a press conference.

“Congratulations to @EmmanuelMacron, new president of #France. Let us work in France and Spain for a stable, prosperous and more integrated Europe,” Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a tweet.

“This is a victory for the French people and for European cooperation. New opportunities will now open up for the proactive agenda needed to strengthen the EU, including more jobs and fair working conditions, a stronger climate policy and a functioning asylum system in which everyone takes responsibility,” said Sweden Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “the victory of President-elect Macron is a symbolic victory against inward- looking and protectionist moves and shows a vote of confidence in the EU.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau telephoned Emmanuel Macron to congratulate him.

“I look forward to working closely with President-elect Macron in the years ahead as we work together on a progressive agenda to promote international security, increase collaboration in science and technology, and create good, middle class jobs on both sides of the Atlantic,” he said in a statement earlier.

Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Macron to bridge deep rifts between Moscow and Paris and work together to fight the threat of terror.

BBC with additional report from Zee