South Korea likely to vote for businessman president

South Koreans went to the polls on Wednesday expected to choose as president a former CEO vowing to knock the economy into shape and stand up to the North, but whose authority could be weakened by a fraud investigation.

The last legally allowed opinion polls a week ago showed former Hyundai Group executive and ex-Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak on course to win the single, five-year term to lead the world’s 13th largest economy, ending 10 years of liberal presidents.

But days before the election fresh allegations of financial corruption surfaced, which analysts said would dent Lee’s lead but not derail him.

That leaves the prospect of his becoming the first president-elect under criminal investigation.

”We need to change the regime that has been in power for the last 10 years,” Lee told reporters at a polling station, sticking to his campaign theme that his conservative agenda and can-do approach would restore a once booming economy.

On Monday, Parliament voted to appoint a special investigator to look into charges that Lee, who denies any wrongdoing, was linked to an investment firm suspected of swindling millions of dollars from investors.

Even if he is implicated, the outcome of the probe is unlikely to be resolved before the inauguration on February 25. A sitting president cannot be prosecuted for such crimes.

Lee’s daunting lead of nearly 30 percentage points over his closest opponent in last week’s polls, and the probe, have cooled enthusiasm in a country used to close races in the four previous elections since its first democratic presidential vote in 1987.

Voters put the economy first in this race, pollsters said, and are ready to make Lee the first former top executive to run the country.

They have previously sent an ex-general, two dissidents who fought decades of dictatorship and a human rights lawyer to the presidential Blue House.

Turnout lower

The National Election Commission said turnout as of mid-afternoon was down by about 7% from the same time five years ago, when the race was neck-and-neck.

Pollsters say they expect about 60% of the country’s 37,7-million voters to cast ballots, down from 71% in 2002. Voting ends at 9am GMT.

Lee’s closest rival is the left-leaning Chung Dong-young, who served in the Cabinet of outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun and is seen as his heir.

”This election is a battle between truth and lies,” Chung told reporters when he voted. He later went to the west coast to help in the clean up of South Korea’s worst oil spill.

North Korea has seen a strong flow of aid under the Roh government. Lee is likely to be less generous. 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 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 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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