SEOUL, South Korea — Declaring that "the foremost task at this time is to end authoritarian rule," Roh Tae Woo, the ruling party's nominee for president, said Tuesday that "fair and free" elections must be carried out to bring legitimacy to government in South Korea.
Speaking to the National Assembly, Roh fended off criticism of tardiness in implementing the sweeping democratic reforms he promised June 29 by making his strongest pledge to date for honest elections. He said he would rather lose a fair election than win a dishonest one.
"However important victory in elections may be, I will support democracy and reject any victory that sacrifices or injures democracy," Roh said.
"The longstanding controversy over legitimacy" can be resolved, Roh said, by "conducting presidential and parliamentary elections in a fair and free manner." Opposition forces have charged that the government of President Chun Doo Hwan lacks legitimacy because Chun took power in a coup in 1980.
Although he said South Korea had once needed concentration of power "to develop democracy amidst war and poverty," the 55-year-old former general said the country can no longer be ruled peacefully by authoritarian governments.
"It is our prime task to remove the last vestiges of authoritarian systems and open an era for the ordinary people," he told the assembly.
Roh's reference to legitimacy and authoritarian rule struck close to home. He participated in Chun's 1980 coup. After Roh retired as a four-star general in 1981, the authoritarian ruler named him to a series of posts, including his present position as head of the ruling Democratic Justice Party.
Conditions in earlier days, Roh added, "make it impossible to criticize past governments and their leaders with black-and-white polemics."
He also attacked the opposition, which, he charged, is attempting to seize power in alliance with "radical leftist forces scheming to establish a socialist government favorable to the (Communist) North Korean regime."
The comment appeared to be aimed at Kim Dae Jung, the last opposition candidate in a direct presidential election, held 16 years ago. It drew an immediate retort from Lee Choong Jae, a vice president of the opposition Reunification Democratic Party.
Lee, a Kim supporter, assailed the government for equating a proposal that Kim made for a three-stage process of reunification of North and South Korea culminating in a "confederation" with a similar proposal by North Korean President Kim Il Sung.
Government propaganda against Kim Dae Jung's proposal, he said, is intended to harm Kim, the opposition party's adviser and an undeclared aspirant for the presidency.
He urged the government to stop trying to prohibit debate on the reunification issue.
Lee, delivering the major opposition party's speech in place of Kim Young Sam, party president, who is not a member of the National Assembly, charged that the ruling party has already begun illegal campaign activities.
The government party, he said, is "buying off opposition agents, mobilizing civil servants for campaigns and distributing applications for party membership at public rallies."
He reiterated a demand made last July that a "pan-national, neutral, interim government," including opposition leaders in the Cabinet, be established to oversee the presidential election, which is to be held by Dec. 20.
In another development, a public uproar forced Chun's government, for the second time in eight days, to reverse repressive action.
The national police headquarters announced Tuesday that it is rescinding a directive it issued last month to arrest people conducting straw polls on the popularity of the leading aspirants for president. Such polls are banned under the Presidential Election Law, which is being revised.
Police took the action after the prosecutor general's office ruled that laws in the process of being revised should not be enforced against violators.
The about-face apparently will permit full-fledged public opinion polls by newspapers and opinion-polling organizations, which also are prohibited under the current law. Neither police nor the prosecutor's office mentioned full-fledged polls, however.
Kim Chung Su, 22, a Hanyang University senior arrested Saturday for polling 1,360 students at his campus, remained in jail, however, charged with violating an anti-demonstration law. His arrest precipitated the uproar.
On Sept. 28, the government lifted a ban it had imposed on publication of two monthly magazines after a similar public outcry erupted.