South Koreans vote for new leader after months of political vacuum
South Koreans headed to voting stations on Tuesday to elect a new leader, looking to move on from a corruption scandal that brought down former President Park Geun-hye and shook the political and business elite to the core, APA reports quoting Reuters.
Unless there is a major upset, liberal Moon Jae-in - who calls for a moderate approach on North Korea, wants to reform powerful family-run conglomerates and boost fiscal spending to create jobs - will be elected president.
The vote will end a months-long leadership vacuum. Park was ousted on charges of bribery and abuse of power in March to become South Korea's first democratically elected president to be forced from office. She is in jail, on trial.
Park has denied wrongdoing. She decided not to vote, despite having the right to do so, South Korean media reported.
Moon, who narrowly lost to Park in the previous presidential election in 2012, has criticized the two former conservative governments for failing to stop North Korea's weapons development. He advocates a two-track policy of dialogue while maintaining pressure and sanctions to encourage change.
(For a graphic on South Korea's presidential election, click tmsnrt.rs/2p8kyHn)
A Gallup Korea poll published last Wednesday showed Moon with 38 percent support in a field of 13 candidates, with centrist Ahn Cheol-soo his nearest challenger on 20 percent.
Moon told reporters after casting his ballot he had "given the campaign his all", and urged South Koreans to vote.
Ahn, who voted earlier at a different polling station, said he would wait for the people's "wise decision". Other presidential candidates were also seen voting early in the day.
Voter turnout stood at 19.4 percent by 11 a.m. (10.00 p.m. ET on Sunday), according to the National Election Commission (NEC), lagging the 26.4 percent turnout seen at the same hour in the 2012 election.
The NEC forecasts total voter turnout reaching more than 80 percent, which would be the highest since President Kim Dae-jung was elected in 1997 after 80.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
One in every four voters cast ballots in early voting last week, seen driven by higher participation by younger people.
The polls opened at 6 a.m. (2100 GMT on Monday) and will close at 8 p.m. (1100 GMT).
A Moon victory would provide much-needed stability and was expected to improve market sentiment at a time when robust exports have supported a recovery in Asia's fourth-largest economy.
The won KRW= is up nearly 7 percent against the dollar this year, while South Korean shares .KS11 are trading at a record high with foreign investors confident about corporate earnings after South Korean businesses did well in the first quarter.
South Korean financial markets are closed on Tuesday but will resume trade on Wednesday.
The winner is expected to be sworn in on Wednesday, after the NEC releases the official result. Most candidates, including Moon and Ahn, plan to skip a lavish inauguration ceremony if successful and start their new job right away.
The new leader is expected to quickly name a prime minister, who will need parliamentary approval, and main cabinet positions, including national security and finance ministers, which do not need parliamentary confirmation.
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