The winning candidate must tackle challenges such as the effects of South Korea's worst wave of Covid-19 infections, growing inequality and surging home prices.

Lee, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party, are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in.
Lee, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party, are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in. (AP)

Exit polls have shown the two leading candidates in dead heat as voting ended in South Korea's presidential election to decide the country's leader for the next five years.

Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, with 48.4 percent, was slightly ahead of liberal Lee Jae-myung, with 47.8 percent, an exit poll jointly conducted by three television networks showed on Wednesday.

Another poll by broadcaster JTBC showed Lee ahead with 48.4 percent, to Yoon's 47.7 percent.

The campaign was marked by surprises, scandals and smears, but the policy stakes are high for the populace of 52 million.

The winning candidate must tackle challenges such as the effects of South Korea's worst wave of Covid-19 infections, growing inequality and surging home prices, while navigating an increasingly tense rivalry between China and the United States.

Voters also seek a leader who can root out graft and pursue negotiations to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Lee, the standard-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, and Yoon, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party, are vying to succeed incumbent President Moon Jae-in, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.

READ MORE: South Korea votes for president in bitter election

Yoon to abolish the gender equality ministry

The gaffe-prone opposition candidate Yoon is more hawkish on North Korea, and has threatened a pre-emptive strike if necessary.

The former top prosecutor has also promised to abolish the gender equality ministry, saying South Korean women do not suffer from "systemic gender discrimination", despite evidence to the contrary.

"The widespread support Yoon enjoys from young men is frankly absolutely terrifying from a woman's point of view," academic and female voter Keung Yoon Bae said.

The winner of the election will formally succeed Moon in May. 

The incumbent remains popular, despite not achieving a promised peace deal with North Korea.

READ MORE: South Korean ruling party leader attacked during election campaign

Source: TRTWorld and agencies