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South Korean leader's popularity rises ahead of elections Wednesday

South Korean voters wait in line to cast ballots Friday while maintaining social distancing at a polling station in Seoul. The general election is Wednesday. Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE
South Korean voters wait in line to cast ballots Friday while maintaining social distancing at a polling station in Seoul. The general election is Wednesday. Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, April 13 (UPI) -- Ahead of legislative elections on Wednesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in saw his favorability rating rise to 54.4 percent, his highest level since November 2018, according to a survey Monday.

The Realmeter poll showed Moon's negative rating fell to 42.3 percent. The pollster surveyed more than 2,500 voters last week.

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Moon's approval rating has been steadily climbing as South Korea's response to the coronavirus pandemic has flattened the curve of new infections while avoiding widespread shutdowns that other nations have imposed.

The leader's favorability rating dipped to 48.7 percent on the same poll in the first week of March, when South Korea was scrambling to contain a rapidly expanding outbreak centered around the southeastern city of Daegu. Moon was criticized for failing to completely ban travelers from China, and a petition calling for his impeachment over the handling of the escalating crisis gained nearly 1.5 million signatures.

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However, as South Korea's program of widespread testing and contract tracing began to dramatically slow the spread of the virus, the government's response has come to be seen as a global success story.

On Monday, Moon touted South Korea's accomplishments in fighting the coronavirus.

"Our achievements are recognized by the international community and our national status is increasing," he said during a meeting with aides, in remarks released by the presidential Blue House.

RELATED Early voting turnout reaches record high in South Korea

"The principles of transparency, openness and democracy and advanced prevention techniques are becoming international standards," Moon added, noting that the export of products such as diagnostic kits made in Korea is further raising the country's profile.

The timing of Moon's rise is expected to help his Democratic Party at the polls on Wednesday, as South Korea will hold elections for all 300 seats in its National Assembly, the country's unicameral legislative body.

The ruling party has been campaigning heavily on the government's COVID-19 response, while the opposition United Future Party has tried to highlight issues such as concerns over Moon's handling of the economy and a corruption scandal that forced the resignation of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk in October.

RELATED South Korea reports fewest new coronavirus cases since February

Despite an ongoing policy of social distancing, politicians have campaigned in the streets in recent weeks, albeit while wearing face masks and bumping fists or elbows instead of shaking hands.

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The National Election Commission has instituted a number of safety precautions at polling stations, including performing temperature checks and requiring disposable gloves to be worn when casting ballots.

The government has also set up voting facilities at special quarantine facilities where patients with mild cases of COVID-19 can cast their ballots, while voters under self-quarantine will be able to participate during special time slots.

Fear of the coronavirus didn't deter early voters on Friday and Saturday. The National Election Commission said Monday a record-high 26.7 percent of South Korea's roughly 44 million eligible voters turned out over those two days.

Moon said Monday that successfully holding elections can be a source of hope for other countries fighting the pandemic.

"If we are able to maintain safety standards while holding elections on a national scale, we will be able to give the international community the hope of returning to normal social systems and daily activities," he said.

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