Seoul – Polls opened early Wednesday as South Koreans began to vote for their next president, with the race a tight battle between the two front-runners, liberal Lee Jae-myung and conservative Yoon Seok-youl.
Election Day is a public holiday in the country of 44 million voters, with polling booths open until 6 p.m.
An additional 90 minutes will be allotted after closing when COVID-positive voters will be allowed to cast their ballots.
Vote counting is expected to start by 8 p.m., and the results will likely be known early Thursday, with a formal announcement by the National Election Commission coming later that day.
The incoming president will face a host of issues including diplomatic challenges such as thorny ties with Japan and political tensions prompted by repeated rounds of missile launches by North Korea.
Record early voting indicates turnout will be high after a campaign dominated by mud-slinging between Lee, of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon of the opposition People Power Party.
The first voters arrived at polling stations as it was still dark, lining up wearing their masks.
South Korea is in the grip of an omicron COVID-19 wave, with more than 200,000 new virus cases being recorded most days this month.
More than a million people are currently isolating at home after testing positive, health authorities say. The country amended its electoral laws last month to ensure they would be able to vote.
In a two-day early voting exercise last week, a record-breaking 37% of the 44 million people eligible cast their ballots — the highest number since the system was introduced in 2013.
Polls show the top concerns among the electorate are skyrocketing house prices in the capital Seoul, rising domestic inequality and stubborn youth unemployment.
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