Lee coasts to South Korea poll victory

Right-wing businessman Lee Myung-bak won South Korea’s presidential election by a landslide on Wednesday with his promises to make voters better off and stand up to North Korea, TV exit polls showed.

The wide margin of victory — the biggest in a direct election since South Korea’s first autocratic president took power 50 years ago — put to rest concerns in his camp that a fresh probe in allegations of fraud by Lee might deter voters.

”The issue was the economy. Nothing else really mattered this time,” said office worker Han Jae-kwang.

An exit poll for the KBS TV and MBC TV stations gave Lee 50,3% of the vote, in line with the huge lead he has had in opinion polls throughout the campaign.

His main rival, left-of-centre Chung Dong-young, was second with just 26%, and by far the largest gap since the country started democratic elections 20 years ago.

Analysts say Chung has been unable to shake off his political links to outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun, who has been deeply unpopular during much of his five-year term and is seen as having failed to breathe life into the world’s 13th largest economy.

Former Hyundai executive and ex-Seoul mayor Lee will take over the presidential Blue House after 10 years of liberal leaders.

”The people have chosen the person who has the ability to revive the economy,” a senior MP with Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP), Ahn Sang-soo, told reporters after the exit poll.

Third candidate concedes

Third-ranking candidate and independent conservative Lee Hoi-chang conceded defeat and urged Lee Myung-bak ”to put right the wrongdoings of the past administration”.

If the poll numbers stand up, it would mark the first time a candidate has won more than 50% of the vote since long-time dictator Park Chung-hee in the early 1970s.

It was also one of the lowest turnouts in South Korea’s presidential elections at about 60%, compared with about 70% in the 2002 poll, a reflection, analysts said, of the predictable outcome.

Hundreds of supporters dressed in the campaign’s blue colour, and several sporting red Santa hats, danced in front of Lee’s party headquarters after the exit polls were released.

But his victory is tempered with the prospect of being the first-president elect under criminal investigation after Parliament this week voted to appoint a special investigator to look into charges he was involved with an investment firm suspected of swindling millions of dollars from investors.

He denies the charges and even if he is implicated, the probe is unlikely to be resolved before the February 25 inauguration. A sitting president cannot be prosecuted for such crimes.

Voters put the economy first in this race, pollsters said, and were keen to make Lee the first former top executive to run the country. They had previously sent an ex-general, two dissidents who fought decades of dictatorship and a human rights lawyer to the Blue House.

Less generous to north

Lee is likely to be less generous to North Korea, which has seen a strong flow of aid under the Roh government. He wants Seoul’s largesse tied more closely to progress the North makes in ending its nuclear arms programme.

Financial markets have been encouraged by Lee’s pledges to make life easier for foreign investors and cut through the red tape he sees as stifling local business, especially the giant conglomerates that were behind South Korea’s economic rise.

Lee, nicknamed ”the bulldozer” for his hard-charging style and who turned 66 on election day, says he wants to bring 7% growth. That compares with an average of a little over 4% during Roh’s rule.

But economists say Lee’s target is a tall order for a country that is coming under increasing competitive pressure from neighbouring China and Japan while one of its biggest export markets, the United States, is looking at an economically tough 2008.

Economists want Lee to put in painful reforms to help South Korea transform from a manufacturing and export-based economy and better develop the finance and other services sectors. – Reuters

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Jon Herskovitz
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