Conservative Lee Myung-bak wins presidential election

Posted on : 2007-12-19 18:07 KST Modified on : 2007-12-19 18:07 KST
Lee’s victory brings power to the conservative GNP in ten years and heralds significant changes in South Korea
By Jang Jung-soo

Lee Myung-bak, the conservative candidate of the Grand National Party, has won South Korea’s December 19 presidential election.

Lee, who previously served as the mayor of Seoul, received approximately 48.61 percent of the total. Lee’s closest rival Chung Dong-young, of the liberal, pro-government United New Democratic Party, came in next with approximately 26.21 percent, while independent Lee Hoi-chang received a mere 15.1 percent. Moon Kook-hyun of the Create Korea Party recorded 5.8 percent and Kwon Yong-ghil of the Democratic Labor Party received 3 percent.

The final turnout for Wednesday’s presidential election was estimated at a record low of 62.9 percent, the National Election Commission announced. The NEC said that 23,683,684 voters went to the polls, out of a total 37,653,518. The lower-than-expected turnout can largely be attributed to an excessive amount of smear campaigns lodged throughout the campaign season and Lee’s overwhelming lead in pre-election opinion polls.

Balloting took place in 13,178 polling stations throughout the country. Voting began at 6 a.m. and was scheduled to end at 6 p.m., when vote counting began in 249 local electoral commissions across the country.

Lee’s victory brings conservatives back to power for the first time in ten years. In the previous election, held in 2002, current President Roh Moo-hyun defeated Lee Hoi-chang, who was the main opposition candidate at the time, by a thin margin.

Lee claimed victory in a televised news conference in the GNP headquarter in Seoul, saying the Korean people had given him “absolute support”. “I'm well aware of the people's wishes, and I will serve the people in a very humble way. According to the people's wishes, I will save the nation's economy that faces a crisis.”

Earlier, Chung Dong-young accepted his defeat in the presidential race. “I respect the Korean people's choice today. I wish president-elect Lee Myung-bak will do well for the country. I apologize for falling short of the people's expectations,” Chung said in a statement at the UNDP headquarters in Seoul.

Lee had a commanding lead in the exit polls, which came on the heels of Lee’s lead in previous polls of more than 20 percentage points over his competitors.

Lee seems to have overcome the political turmoil that was reignited on December 16, when a video clip in which he says he founded the controversial investment firm BBK was discovered.

Since then, Lee’s poll numbers have tumbled. However, Lee’s huge gains in the exit polls seem to illustrate that the exposure generated by the controversy has stimulated alarmed conservative voters to rally behind him.

Before he launched his campaign, Lee was a popular Seoul mayor who transformed the city’s landscape. During his term, which ran from 2002 to 2006, he undertook the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon, a stream that had once been covered by asphalt roads, and created a bus-only lane to ease traffic. These achievements have been cited as prime reasons for his soaring popularity.

Lee is South Korea’s first president-elect with a background in business. Prior to serving as the mayor of Seoul, he served as the CEO of Hyundai’s construction division. This experience, seen as practical evidence of his ability to boost the country’s economy, is also often cited as one of the main factors behind his success in this election.

Lee Myung-bak, who turned 66 on election day, has dominated the presidential race by what appeared to have been an insurmountable margin of support in the polls.

“I want to thank our people who have protected me against so many negative attacks during the campaign,” Lee said after voting with his wife near his residence in Seoul. “This time, we should replace the government without fail.”

Lee’s expected landslide victory can also largely be attributed to the widespread unpopularity of incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun. Over the years, dissatisfaction with the Roh administration has grown, largely because of what people see as lack of attention to the economy and soaring housing prices. In particular, the rampant unemployment rate of the nation’s young has been a major source of low approval ratings for President Roh. The economic polarization has also worked against the Roh administration.

Lee’s win is still not likely to put an end to the nation’s political turmoil. In particular, the BBK case is expected to continue to be a source of trouble. Lee had previously claimed that he had no involvement with the now-bankrupt investment firm BBK whatsoever, and the prosecution cleared him of involvement in the scam on December 5. However, the National Assembly passed a bill allowing for an independent inquiry into the case and Lee is expected to come under investigation before he takes office on February 25.

Lee’s election victory heralds significant changes in South Korea. Under Lee, inter-Korean relations are likely to undergo a sharp shift in tone and approach. Throughout his campaign, Lee has emphasized that economic aid to North Korea will parallel the pace of progress toward the denuclearization of North Korea. Expert predict that Lee’s policy on North Korea will be tougher than that of President Roh, but it is not likely that Lee will roll back the current policy of engagement. At the same time, however, Lee is likely to decelerate the speed of economic cooperation with North Korea until it has been fully denuclearized.

Lee is also likely to take a tough stance against the labor movement. He has repeatedly vowed that he will not tolerate illegal strikes if he takes power. Lee appears to think that a lenient policy toward South Korea’s militant labor movement discourages entrepreneurs to embark on new businesses. In this context, Lee is expected to deal with strikes as harshly as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did when she took office in the early 1980s.

A firm believer in a free market economy, Lee plans to roll back a number of regulations restricting business. During the campaign, he promised to deregulate the economy so as to create a more business-friendly environment. In addition, it is expected that he will adopt a series of market-oriented measures, bringing about enormous change in the business sector as a whole.

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