12/18/2007, 00.00
SOUTH KOREA
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Presidential elections: waiting for Lee’s victory in Seoul

by Pino Cazzaniga
A day before votes are cast, surveys indicate that the former mayor of Seoul will win the bid for the highest office. A declared Christian Lee Myung-bak can count less on his party’s political positions than on his own status as a symbol of South Korea’s economic success, rising like the phoenix out of the ashes of war.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – South Koreans will vote tomorrow to choose a new president. Two days ago when the campaign officially came to an end a victory by Lee Myung-bak from the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) was a foregone outcome to most pundits. A survey by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper in fact gave Lee 45.4 per cent of the vote, more than twice that of his closest rival Chung Dong–young (17.5 per cent), who is running under the banner of the ruling United New Democratic Party (UNDP).

Mr Lee’s march to victory has not been without problems though. Ever since he entered the race he has been dogged by allegations of financial wrongdoing.

The slate seemed to have been wiped clean earlier this month when prosecutors decided that there was not enough evidence to charge Lee in connection with allegations of stock market price-fixing, which date back six years.

But the issue resurfaced on Sunday when a video emerged appearing to show Mr Lee admitting he was the co-founder of the company at the centre of the allegations

Exercising his constitutional prerogatives outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun asked Justice Minister Chung Soung-jin to consider reopening the fraud investigation; the latter declined however saying prosecutors had already looked into the case and he trusted them.

In parliament the UNDP majority passed a motion naming an independent counsel to look into the matter. The GNP deserted the vote calling the decision politically motivated. But eventually both the justice minister and Mr Lee accepted the parliament’s decision. Doing anything else might have jeopardised the democratic system of government.

Despite the last moment move, which might be legally correct but smacks of political opportunism, most analysts agree that Lee’s victory is not threatened.

The video, said Chun In-Young, a political science professor at Seoul National University, “will deal a painful but not lethal blow to Lee Myung-Bak.” But for others all it will do is reduce his margin of victory.

Koreans have a vigorous political life and can be quite quarrelsome and emotional. On this occasion these features could have serious consequences since this presidential election is particularly challenging to a country that has gained its democracy and economic progress the hard way.

In the last decade the presidency was occupied by two progressive leaders: Kim Dae-jung (82) and Roh Moo-hyun (61), different in age but also in political acumen.

Thanks to them the leftovers of the military dictatorship have gone and the population at all levels has come to consciously embrace the democratic spirit.

President Kim risked his life four times during the dictatorship in defence of the democratic ideal and put his many political and human skills to the disposal of Koreans, north and south.

His "sunshine policy” vis-à-vis the North, which peaked with his summit in Pyongyang with his northern counterpart, was inspired by his love of country. And although ostensibly a left-winger he did not shy away from adopting “rightwing” economic policies to address the country’s serious economic crisis.

President Roh is a different kind of leader. A lawyer by training, his activism in the defence of human rights served him well when he ran and was elected five years ago (he cannot run again because of constitutional term limitations). However, he never had the political experience of his predecessor.

Conscious of his limits he tried to gain popular support by playing the card of nationalism and by taking an anti-US and anti-Japanese stance.

Even his visit to Pyongyang (for the second intra-Korean summit) last October appeared to be partially motivated by domestic politics, reflecting a desire to improve the ruling party’s chances in tomorrow’s presidential election.

However, the economy has been his Achilles’ heel. His management of economic affairs has been ruinous. Housing prices have hit the roof; unemployment has risen; whilst the rich have gotten richer and the poor, poorer.  

“Our surveys have shown the economy is by far the No. 1 task that the next president should focus on,” said Yoon Young-hoon, a senior researcher at Korea Society Opinion Institute, a major survey agency.

Lee’s huge popularity is largely due to his personal qualities rather than his party’s policies and platform. Popularly known as the “bulldozer,” he is to many a symbol of South Korea’s meteoric rise after the Korean War (1950-1953) that turned the war-ravaged land into the world’s 12th largest economy.

Lee was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1941, but his family returned to Korea in 1945, destitute.

Working during the day and studying at night he was able to graduate in economics. In 1965 he went to work for the Hyunday Engineering and Construction Company, then a small firm of some 90 employees.

With the support of the company’s founder, Chung Ju-yung, who admired the talented young man, he climbed the corporate ladder and became the company’s chairman in the eighties when the name Hyunday was already a household name around the world with a workforce of 190,000.

He later entered politics getting himself elected mayor of Seoul (2002-2006). During his tenure South Korea’s capital went through major changes that turned into a model metropolis.

For the majority of South Koreans who are concerned with economic reform Lee is the man of the moment.

In his autobiography he wrote that the “bases of my success in business are decisiveness and courage. I was able to turn challenges into opportunities because of my personal qualities.”

Tomorrow’s election, which coincidentally falls on his birthday, will be the major challenge of his life.

Lee, who is married and has three daughters and one son, is a declared Christian and an elder at Somang Presbyterian Church in Seoul.

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