Yoon Suk Yeol of the main opposition People Power Party clinched victory in Wednesday's tight presidential election in South Korea, defeating the ruling Democratic Party's Lee Jae Myung, according to local media projections.

Yoon's win will herald a transfer of power from the progressive government of current President Moon Jae In to conservative leadership after five years. The new president will take office on May 10 and serve a single five-year term.

Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea's main opposition People Power Party celebrates on March 10, 2022, in Seoul, after clinching victory in the previous day's tight presidential election. (Pool photo)(Kyodo)

Speaking to a press conference in Seoul, Yoon said, "It's a victory of great South Koreans" and pledged to cooperate with opposition parties.

Admitting his defeat in the race, Lee told a separate press conference, "I would like to send words of congratulations to candidate Yoon Suk Yeol, and would like to sincerely ask to open an era of integration and harmony while overcoming division and discord."

The ruling party's candidate added that he did his best in the election but he "could not meet South Koreans' expectation."

The 61-year-old former top prosecutor successfully appealed to voters unhappy with the Moon government's performance, including its failure to rein in skyrocketing housing prices.

Yoon has severely criticized Moon's rapprochement policy toward North Korea, favoring instead stronger ties with South Korea's sole defense ally, the United States, as well as Japan.

As the new president, he will face a host of issues, including diplomatic challenges with Japan and political tensions prompted by repeated rounds of missile launches by North Korea.

Lee Jae Myung of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party admits his defeat on March 10, 2022, in Seoul, in the previous day's presidential election. (Pool photo)(Kyodo)

Yoon announced his presidential bid in mid-2021 after quitting as the nation's chief prosecutor following a bitter clash with the Moon government over its prosecutorial reform drive, which he opposed.

The subsequent presidential race has been very tight, with Yoon and Lee remaining in a virtual tie in many public opinion surveys until just before the election.

A potential watershed moment came last Thursday when Ahn Cheol Soo, the centrist opposition People's Party candidate and a distant third in the race, according to opinion surveys, dropped out and declared his support for Yoon.

The consolidation of the opposition candidates is likely to have helped Yoon edge out his progressive rival.

The main issues for voters were economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, economic disparities and skyrocketing housing prices, particularly in the Seoul metropolitan area.

But both Yoon and Lee and their camps spent weeks ahead of the poll engaged in negative campaigning. Even their wives were attacked over several issues.

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The weather during Wednesday's voting was mostly fine. Voters streamed into over 14,400 polling stations from 6 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., with the last 90 minutes reserved for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus as a public health measure.

As voting ended in the evening, three major broadcasters, including public broadcaster KBS, released an exit poll showing Yoon and Lee neck and neck at 48.4 percent and 47.8 percent, respectively.

The National Election Commission is expected to formally announce the results later Thursday.

Vote counting for the South Korea presidential election takes place in Seoul on March 9, 2022. (Kyodo)

Turnout among over 44 million eligible voters was 77.1 percent, 0.1 percentage point lower than the last presidential election in 2017, according to the commission's provisional data. About 37 percent had cast their ballots in early voting on Friday and Saturday.

Yoon had been a career prosecutor. After being appointed as prosecutor general under the Moon government in 2019, Yoon clashed with then Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a close aide to Moon, who was leading an effort to reduce prosecutors' power.

Yoon resigned in March last year, announced his presidential bid in June and joined the main opposition People Power Party the following month. He became the party's presidential candidate in November.

While Yoon is a newcomer to politics, Lee has been a politician for over 10 years, serving as the mayor of a city outside Seoul and later as governor of Gyeonggi Province.