A conservative turn in South Korea

Ex-Hyundai executive leads in presidential race

December 16, 2007|By Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace,Los Angeles Times

SEOUL, South Korea -- Posters paper the downtown, urging people to vote for the candidate who promises a "Clean Korea, Reliable President," or alternatively "A President For The Economy Who Makes It Happen."

Organizers herd supporters they bus in from the countryside for outdoor rallies, where barrel-chested policemen are dispatched to tamp down trouble and candidates are welcomed with flickering candles held aloft in the chill evening air.

All the usual signs of a political campaign in its frantic last stages are on display in Seoul as South Koreans prepare to elect a new president Wednesday.

Yet while rival politicians even resorted to brawling in parliament Friday as they argued over corruption allegations against front-runner Lee Myung Bak, voters don't seem to share the excitement in the campaign to replace outgoing President Roh Moo Hyun.

Perhaps it is the lack of ideological fervor between Korea's usually dueling political left and right.

Perhaps voters feel burned by their initial enthusiasm for Roh, who is perceived to have failed to deliver on his promises and limps to the end of his five-year term a deeply unpopular leader.

Or popular enthusiasms might be dulled simply because Lee, the former Hyundai construction company executive and later a popular mayor of Seoul, has such a commanding lead in the polls that there's no cause for suspense.

Conservative leads

But whatever the reason, South Koreans seem prepared to turn away from a decade of liberal rule and elect a new conservative president with all the emotion of paying a utility bill.

"Lee Myung Bak is the safe bet rather than someone who can take us to the next level of a new Korea," says Michael Hong, the chief financial officer of Pandora TV, South Korea's biggest video sharing Web site, which had been hoping for - but hasn't seen - the kind of traffic and attention that Youtube is enjoying in the U.S. primaries this year.

"If the candidates were more electrifying, they might have symbolized something to the new generation of Koreans," Hong says.

"But Lee Myung Bak is an old-fashioned industrialist who represents the serious side of our society, not the light, fun side of Korea."

Yet sticking to the basics of economic issues has brought Lee to the brink of the presidency (he's the candidate with the poster pledging "a president for the economy who makes it happen"). His poll numbers have been shaved slightly from the 50 percent-plus levels of two months ago.

But attempts by his opponents to tar Lee with an unproven financial scandal have failed to resonate.

Each of the final opinion surveys done before the required polling blackout took effect Thursday showed him holding a massive lead.

The last polls showed Lee 25 points up on his nearest rival: liberal candidate Chung Dong Young, a former television anchorman who carries the baggage of having been a minister under Roh.

Slumping liberals

Meanwhile, the shrinking liberal vote is being split between Chung and Moon Kook Hyun, who has run a surprisingly strong campaign as head of a personal political vehicle he calls the Creative Korea Party.

The two main liberal candidates agree on the urgency of merging their campaigns if they hope for any last-minute rally that could catch Lee.

But meetings last week failed to find a power-sharing formula that both could accept.

Meanwhile, the old template for Korean elections appears shattered. Ideological splits that animated previous presidential elections, in which liberals and conservatives snarled at each other over how to handle the totalitarian regime in North Korea, have become muted by the staleness of familiarity.

Lee pledged during his campaign to take a more critical view of Seoul's aid to the North and demand more in return, though analysts predict that South Korean assistance will still flow as long as Pyongyang continues to scale back its nuclear weapons program.

Instead of dealings with the North dominating politics, South Koreans are concerned with economic issues:

How to afford decent housing that doesn't require a long commute to work.

Whether their children can get a decent education without the expense of extra after-hours tutoring

Whether they will have the economic security necessary to enjoy living in the world's 12th-largest economy.

"If the candidates were more exciting or energetic, I'm sure we would have got a lot more attention," Hong says.

"This is just not a close election."

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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