SEOUL, South Korea — For the first time in 16 years, voters went to the polls today to choose a new president, in an election that will shape a new future for South Korea but is also expected to ignite trouble almost immediately.
The possibilities for postelection unrest, observers say, range from scattered student demonstrations that police could easily suppress to a coup or a nationwide uprising or even a combination of the latter two. Only the remote possibility of a landslide victory for one of the three leading candidates holds out a hope for a calm aftermath.
In a country where "the art of graceful defeat is virtually unknown," as City Editor Chong Un Bung of the Korea Times wrote recently, no one expects the result to be accepted peacefully.
Stability at Stake
At stake is the very stability of a country to whose security the United States has committed 43,000 troops. Also in the balance is the leadership structure of government and business that has lifted the country from abject poverty in 1961, when the late President Park Chung Hee staged a coup, to the brink of being an advanced industrialized nation.
On one side in the contest are Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, two longtime advocates of democracy. Both have spent their entire political careers in the opposition and both declare that the main goal of the election is to "end military rule."
On the other side is Roh Tae Woo, a former general like the man he helped to gain power in a 1980 coup, President Chun Doo Hwan. He now promises to implement full-blown democracy and "wipe out all vestiges of authoritarianism."
"An opposition victory would produce such a shock that the entire government machinery would be paralyzed for months," said one mid-level bureaucrat, noting that the new president, who will have a five-year term, will not be inaugurated until next Feb. 25.
"Our planning would come to a complete halt," said one of the nation's leading businessmen, who asked not to be named. "A change in leadership here can mean life and death to any company. The government can kill any firm by just ordering banks to cut off its loans."
Social unrest, a decline in productivity, an economic slowdown--all are among the gloomy possibilities listed by Establishment figures. And if those forecasts come true, they add, a military coup would follow in three months, six months or a year.
"If a coup does occur, it will bring a worse military dictatorship this time than Korea has ever had before," the leading businessman said.
If much of the speculation about impending trouble appears overdrawn, the worry that gives rise to it is very real. Never in its 39-year history has South Korea changed leaders peacefully or democratically. A student uprising, a coup, an assassination and another coup brought about the previous transitions.
This time, the election campaign started with a new promise of democracy from the nation's military rulers but quickly deteriorated into a struggle of personalities, leaving many voters in a dilemma--sharing the Establishment's worry over the unknown but embracing a nearly universal longing for greater democracy.
So important do South Koreans consider the selection of a new leader that more than 90% of the 25.9 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots. However, many have put off until the last minute deciding how they will vote, opinion polls show. Some analysts say as many as 20% may make up their minds on the way to the polling stations today.
38% Were Undecided
Just two weeks ago, one opinion poll found 38% of the voters still undecided.
None of the three leading candidates disagrees publicly with the view that sweeping democratic reforms must be carried out.
Roh, 55, the ruling Democratic Justice Party's nominee, has even said that he, as a man who knows the military, is best qualified to end military rule. In any event, he argues, military rule effectively ended June 29 when he accepted the opposition's demand for a direct presidential election instead of a rubber-stamp indirect ballot that would have guaranteed his victory.
The opposition, however, has failed to take full advantage of Roh's decision to make this election a real race. Its inability to field a single opponent against him has deprived South Koreans of a clear-cut choice between the government and the opposition.
Varieties of Turmoil
Speculation on what form the postelection turmoil might take varies according to how the vote might go--not only who wins but by how large a margin.
Roh, Chun's handpicked nominee, has said that he expects student demonstrations if he wins, even in an honest vote count. A convincing margin of victory would help him claim legitimacy, even with less than 50% of the votes, and blame the opposition for inviting its own downfall by fielding two candidates.
Last Saturday, however, Roh declared that he will set up a strong government "if I win by a margin of even one vote."