South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's administration faces a test of leadership in Wednesday's general election, as a heated contest unfolds between his ruling party and a main opposition party currently controlling the legislature.

Since its inauguration in May 2022, Yoon's government has encountered obstacles in advancing crucial legislation, notably a tax reform bill, which faced opposition resistance in the 300-member National Assembly.

A Gallup Korea opinion poll released on March 29 showed the ruling People Power Party with a lead over the main opposition Democratic Party led by Lee Jae Myung, who lost to Yoon in the presidential election two years ago, with the PPP having 37 percent voter support and the DP at 29 percent.

But TV network MBC reported, based on several opinion polls, that the DP's candidates are dominant in 69 constituencies, far more than 37 of the PPP's, out of total 254. Other local media reports also said it is hard to predict the result and it would be up to swing voters.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks at the third Summit for Democracy forum in Seoul on March 18, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Choi Jin, the head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership, told Kyodo News that swing voters will be a major factor, saying they are "sick and tired" of the relentless power struggles between the parties.

Such voters' primary concern, he said, "is in stabilizing the livelihoods of the public, which gives the ruling party an edge as the president is the one who can actually do something, if anything, on such issues."

When Yoon visited South Chungcheong Province in February, he vowed to free up huge swathes of land, closed off for military use, to boost the province's economy. The support rate for the PPP subsequently hit 40 percent, the first time since July 2022.

Choi highlighted this as a prime example of swing voters' sensitivity to economic issues impacting their livelihoods, particularly amid concerns about a sluggish economy and inflation.

Among domestic issues, efforts to address South Korea's sinking birth rate have captured the interest of young voters, with the total fertility rate -- the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime -- marking another record low of 0.72 in 2023.

To address the decline, the PPP outlined plans to improve conditions for raising children, such as providing parents with up to five paid days off per year when a child is sick.

The DP proposed allowances and loans to encourage couples to marry and have children, alongside a commitment to offer free public rental housing to couples with two or more children.

Park Hyunah, a 24-year-old student, said she thinks the main reason women are reluctant to have babies is because they feel insecure about marriage itself, particularly regarding the economic aspect amid soaring housing costs.

"The DP's policies (to tackle the low fertility rate) seem more plausible to me," Park said.

However, Park Soo Young, a 31-year-old nurse who will give birth to her first child later this month, said she is skeptical about the policies of both parties.

"Although there are policies like promotion of taking parental leave and everything even now, it is really hard to actually use them because the atmosphere has not changed at all from the past," she said, calling for an environment that enables mothers to freely choose options for balancing work and child-rearing.

In terms of foreign policies, people who support the PPP said they agree with measures taken by Yoon, including his tough stance toward North Korea that contrasts with the rapprochement policy of his predecessor Moon Jae In from the DP.

Yoon has stressed trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan to counter North Korea's missile threats, such as by improving his country's ties with Tokyo that hit their lowest point after South Korea's Supreme Court in 2018 ordered two Japanese firms to compensate South Korean plaintiffs over wartime forced labor.

In March 2023, Yoon's administration decided to compensate the plaintiffs in a series of wartime labor cases with money from a South Korean government-backed fund rather than seeking restitution directly from the Japanese firms that were sued.

Choi said swing voters seem to have found these moves more practical compared with foreign policies under the Moon administration.

A 33-year-old man living in Seoul said on condition of anonymity that he started supporting the PPP because of these measures.

"I used to be a DP supporter, but my thoughts changed as I watched the Moon administration. The DP did not seem interested in the national interest at all," he said.

Lee Seung Hyun, a 26-year-old woman from the city of Yongin, located 40 kilometers south of Seoul, said she supports Yoon's policy toward Japan.

"I do feel regretful over Japan not making sincere apologies over history issues, but diplomacy is not all about emotions. We should distinguish what is true benefit" for South Korea, Lee said.

Yoon has gained approval with its rating in the 30 percent range. But his government's place to drastically increase the number of students admitted into medical schools to improve health care has triggered controversy.

Thousands of doctors have protested the plan since it was revealed in early February, saying the government should address the pay and working conditions of medical professionals first. The government has warned doctors who boycott their workplaces in protest risk losing their licenses.

The DP's spokesperson Shin Hyun Young said last week, "The administration of Yoon caused the confusion, with the public suffering from lack of manpower in the medical sector," adding the government will be judged for not responding to current situation.

The support rate for the DP, which was once on the downward trend, has shown a recovery in the past weeks, according to some polls.

The PPP chief Han Dong Hoon called for support for the ruling party's candidates last week in central province of Chungju, saying, "The 55 constituencies are fierce battlegrounds" in reference to the constituencies in central regions and some major metropolitan areas.

Amid the competition between the two biggest parties, several new parties formed by popular politicians are fielding candidates.

Cho Kuk, who served as justice minister in Moon's administration, founded the Korea Innovation Party, pledging to reform prosecution and oust Yoon as president. The party won 12 percent of support, according to the Gallup Korea poll, securing third place following the PPP and DP.

During early voting for the general election on Friday and Saturday, a record 31.28 percent cast their ballots, according to the National Election Commission.

Local media have reported that a high overall voter turnout in the Wednesday election could potentially favor opposition parties in securing a majority of the 300 seats in the unicameral legislature, where the support of 200 lawmakers is crucial for initiating processes such as constitutional amendments and presidential impeachments.

As opposition forces have accused Yoon of scandals, including the appointment of a former defense minister to an ambassadorship while he was under investigation over his alleged intervention in the probe into the death of a marine last year, a victory by opposition parties could lead to the impeachment of Yoon.

In the previous election held in 2020, the DP won a landslide victory, securing 180 out of the 300 National Assembly seats.

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