SEOUL, South Korea — Voting for a direct voice in government, South Koreans on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments that authorize this country's first fair and open presidential election in 16 years, planned for December.
Turnout was mixed, lower in the big cities where the political opposition is strong, but the revisions carried strongly--93% in favor--in the nationwide referendum. A simple majority was required for passage.
Fearing trouble from student radicals calling for a boycott of the vote, the government put the national police force on alert, and rifle-bearing officers were posted near polling places here in Seoul. No incidents were reported, however.
Direct Vote the Key Feature
The amendments guarantee basic labor rights, press freedoms and protection from search and seizure without a warrant. But the key provision is restoration of direct election of the president, replacing indirect election by an electoral college.
"I'm not familiar with all the revisions, but I know it gives us a chance to vote for whom we want for president," said Lee Jung Im, a 44-year-old shop owner as she left a polling place in Seoul's middle-class Hapjung district. "I voted yes."
Lee Chang Cho, a spokesman for the governmental Central Elections Management Committee, said the nationwide turnout of the 25.6 million eligible voters averaged 78%. The figure ran lower in the cities, however, with Seoul at 65.4%, Pusan at 72.5% and Kwangju, an opposition stronghold, at 75.6%.
It was the lowest turnout since 77.1% of the voters cast ballots allowing the late President Park Chung Hee to serve a third term.
Voting Day a Holiday
For weeks before the vote, radio and television broadcasts urged voters to go to the polls, apparently out of concern that a combination of neglect and a boycott might drag the turnout under 50% of the eligible list, invalidating the results. A government holiday, declared for the election, may also have shaved the turnout.
All the presidential candidates supported the constitutional revisions, although one, opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, ran into difficulty recording his approval. Kim arrived at the polls without his national identity card, which all voters are required to produce to receive a ballot. Despite the protestations of his aides that Kim was sufficiently well known to be identified, poll clerks sent the candidate home to retrieve his card.
The momentum toward December's presidential election began last April when President Chun Doo Hwan abruptly aborted constitutional-revision talks--near collapse anyway--between the ruling and opposition parties. Calls for him to reverse his decision mounted through May, and in June demonstrations spilled into the streets of Seoul and other major South Korean cities.
With students and riot police clashing almost daily, and stability and Seoul's 1988 Summer Olympics in jeopardy, Roh Tae Woo, the ruling party's nominee for president, put politics in shock here by announcing his support for every major demand of the opposition--most important, direct elections.
Indirect Vote Discarded
Roh had been nominated under the system of indirect--and, the opposition charges, manipulable--voting for the presidency. That system was discarded by Tuesday's vote. It was replaced with a direct-vote amendment worked out by a bipartisan, eight-man committee with equal representation from the ruling Democratic Justice Party and the main opposition Reunification Democratic Party.
All previous changes in South Korean constitutions--which have come frequently in the country's 39-year history--have been imposed by the party or man in power. Both sides made concessions to achieve the amendments on Tuesday's ballot.
Further compromises are embodied in revisions of the election law, now in draft form, that will guide the conduct of the campaign and the December election. The election date, Dec. 20 or earlier, is expected to be set within the next 10 days.
4 Major Candidates
Running in the election will be four major candidates: Roh for the ruling party; Kim Jong Pil, prime minister under the late President Park, and Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, architects of a fragile opposition alliance under the Reunification Democratic Party. This alliance may finally collapse today when Kim Dae Jung is expected to announce the formation of a new party whose banner he will carry. Kim Young Sam is expected to be nominated Nov. 5 by his faction of the RDP, his rival's backers apparently preparing to bolt to the new party.