Exit polls at 8 p.m. local time pointed to a landslide victory with Moon gaining 41% in a wide field of candidates. By 11.45 p.m., Moon had 39% of actual votes, and 31% of total ballots counted.
The nearest rival, with a 26% share of the votes counted so far, was Hong Joon-pyo, a conservative backed by the Liberty Korea Party, the new name for the Saenuri Party of disgraced and deposed Park Geun-hye.
The presidential election was made necessary after a court in February upheld a decision by parliament in December to impeach Park.
Now in prison awaiting trial, Park had been embroiled in scandals involving alleged corruption and trading in influence through a close friend. Media-related corporations, including Samsung and Lotte, are alleged to have made multi-million dollar payments to Park’s friend in return for favorable treatment. Park was also instrumental in compiling a black list of entertainment industry figures who failed to support her.
The rifts caused by Park’s behavior brought millions of people — pro and anti — onto the streets of Seoul and other cities. That left South Korea divided and damaged, at a time when North Korean threats against the West, including South Korea, have reached new heights. Moon has pledged to try to heal the differences.
“This crushing victory was expected and is a victory of longing,” Moon told party members on the basis of the exit polls and the first ballots. “I will achieve reform and national unity, the two missions that our people long for.”