South Korea votes in tight race on economy and jobs


  • World
  • Wednesday, 19 Dec 2012

A combination photograph shows South Korea's presidential candidate Park Geun-hye (L) of conservative and right wing ruling Saenuri Party casting her ballot, and Moon Jae-in (R), former human rights lawyer and presidential candidate of the main opposition Democratic United Party, attending a campaign encouraging people to vote, in Seoul December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Koreans voted on Wednesday in freezing winter temperatures for a new president in a battle between the daughter of their former military ruler and a man her father jailed for political activism.

The next president of Asia's fourth largest economy will have to deal with a hostile North Korea, under young and untested new leader Kim Jong-un, and a slowing domestic economy.

Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye had a thin lead in polls published last week, the last allowed under election rules.

Park's left-wing challenger, Moon Jae-in, has promised to perform global pop sensation Psy's Gangnam Style "horse dance" if turnout hits 77 percent.

That turnout would signify a high level of participation by young voters who pollsters say could propel Moon into the presidential "Blue House".

With three hours until the polls close, turnout was 59.3 percent, higher than the two previous presidential elections and well on track to achieve 70 percent.

If Park wins, the unmarried 60-year old would be the first woman leader of the country, which is still largely run by men in dark suits.

"I trust her. She will save our country," said Park Hye-sook, 67, who voted in an affluent Seoul district early in the morning.

"Her father ... rescued the country," said the housewife and grandmother, who is no relation to the candidate, reflecting the admiration many older voters feel for former president Park Chung-hee, which has translated into support for his daughter.

She has pledged dialogue with impoverished North Korea, whose rocket launch last week reinforced fears it is developing a long-range missile. She has promised a tough line on the isolated North's nuclear and missile programmes.

Park, wearing a red muffler, was cheered by crowds chanting her name as she entered the polling station and urged voters to "open a new era".

Moon is a former human rights lawyer who has promised unconditional aid for North Korea and to reintroduce an engagement policy that ushered in closer ties between the Cold War rivals.

Those ties started unravelling with the shooting by North Korea of a tourist from the South in 2008, and deteriorated with the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, which the North denies, and the shelling of a South Korean island the same year.

Moon cast his ballot in the southern city of Busan and said voters disenchanted by five years of conservative rule under Lee Myung-bak, who is constitutionally limited to a single term, had the chance to "change the world with their vote".

IT'S THE ECONOMY

More than 40 million people are eligible to cast their votes. Polling stations will close at 6 p.m. (9:00 a.m. British time) and the three network television stations will announce the result of a jointly conducted exit poll shortly afterwards.

While Park's bid to become president has stirred debate and divisions about her father's rule, and the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea also hangs over the country, the main issue in the election has been the economy.

While outwardly successful and home to some of the world's biggest companies, such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Hyundai Motor Co, South Korean society has become steadily more unequal.

Park advocated a broader welfare policy than when she ran five years ago, when she failed to win the conservative presidential nomination, but says she will not raise taxes or spend more money to boost the economy, instead relying on cutting wasteful spending.

Moon, by contrast, has proposed an $18 billion (11 billion pounds) jobs package, boosting maternity pay and taxing the super-rich. He has also pledged to repeal a controversial free trade agreement with the United States.

Park's father took power in a 1961 coup and helped push South Korea from poverty to developed nation status, but at the cost of repressing human rights and democracy.

His wife was shot by a North Korean-backed assassin who was gunning for him in 1974 and his then young daughter took on the role of South Korea's first lady until Park's own killing in 1979 by his security chief after a drunken night out.

The younger Park has at times sought to appeal to the spirit that her father embodied. On Tuesday she evoked his economic call to arms of "Let's Live well" in a bid to rally her party faithful.

But at other times she has stumbled over apologies to victims of her father's rule and sought to appeal to her mother's softer image.

Moon, jailed in 1975 when he was a student activist, has attacked Park "for living the life of a princess". His only political experience was as an aide to former President Roh Moo-hyun, who was his law partner.

(Editing by David Chance and Robert Birsel)

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