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A landslide for S. Korea conservative

President-elect Lee Myung-bak's victory is seen as a message from voters tired of a decade of erratic liberal rule.

December 20, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — A day after his resounding election victory ended a decade of turbulent liberal rule, President-elect Lee Myung-bak stuck to his campaign mantra today, asserting that he had been chosen by South Koreans to "save the economy."

Wednesday's result suggested that voters were prepared to set aside doubts about Lee's character and elect a conservative politician peddling nostalgia for the glory days of turbocharged economic expansion. His winning campaign pivoted on a single theme: that South Koreans were suffering financially from the erratic liberal government of President Roh Moo-hyun, and that his own background as a hard-working, pragmatic construction company executive would put South Korea back on the economic fast track.

South Koreans agreed, electing Lee with 48.7% of the votes in an 11-man field. Though he fell just short of the 50% level he had hoped would give him greater legitimacy, Lee still polled more than double the votes of his nearest rival. It was the biggest landslide in a presidential election since South Korea's dictatorships gave way to democracy 20 years ago.

But with less than 63% of those eligible bothering to cast ballots, it was also the lowest turnout in 20 years. That reflected the dirty-but-dull campaign, which lacked the ideological clashes of previous elections, when democracy campaigners battled successors of the country's authoritarian past.

It may have also reflected nagging doubts about Lee's ethics from his days as a businessman. Even before he takes office Feb. 25, the president-elect faces a new, independent inquiry of his role in an investment company accused of stock manipulation that swindled thousands of small investors.

Lee has denied breaking the law, maintaining that the furor was part of his opponents' desperate, mud-hurling campaign. Another investigation this month cleared Lee of any criminal wrongdoing.

But calls for the new investigation emerged near the eve of the election when opposing camps released an old video of a Lee speech in 2000, in which he appeared to claim ownership of the company.

Lee could still be indicted before he takes office, though as president he will have immunity from prosecution for all crimes except treason until his term ends. The effect of an indictment would be felt most keenly by Lee's Grand National Party during parliamentary elections in April.

"Even if he is indicted before Feb. 25, the trial has to be suspended," said Lim Ji-bong, a law professor at Sogang University in Seoul. "So legally, there's no reason for him to step down."

Yet after a year in which every sector of society seemed to face allegations of endemic corruption, many South Koreans appeared numb to the claims being made against Lee, who turned 66 on Wednesday. They already had discounted his admission he had used fake addresses to get his children into better schools.

His campaign tried to distract them further by focusing relentlessly on pocketbook issues, stoking jitters about China's rising manufacturing power. The cornerstone of his economic program is an old-fashioned mega-construction project: a grand canal through the center of the country to improve transportation links and boost regional economies.

The depth of South Korea's "crisis" is debatable. The country enjoyed a respectable 5% growth last year, hardly equal to Chinese figures but superior to those of neighboring Japan. South Korea has a healthy public balance sheet, a robust export sector and reviving domestic demand.

But there is widespread malaise over perceptions of a widening income gap and shrinking economic opportunities for the middle class, despite Roh's promises to deal with those concerns. And Roh is seen to have badly fumbled the issue of South Korea's housing crunch, in which rampant demand and high prices, especially in Seoul, have forced many workers into long commutes.

"The changes we wanted 10 years ago didn't happen," said Jo Geon-seung, 26, a university graduate from Gwangju, the southwestern city in the liberal heartland, who is still looking for work. "They only had ideology."

As a former senior executive of the construction arm of the Hyundai Group during the years of headier expansion, Lee was well positioned to benefit from the disillusionment. His image as a tycoon from the go-go days of the 1980s and '90s and his reputation as an innovative mayor of Seoul from 2002 to 2006 instilled confidence in a public exhausted by Roh's chaotic, confrontational style.

Concern about the economy also banished the ideological debates that had been at the heart of previous presidential elections. Lee has vowed to take a vaguely more accommodating line with Washington and a vaguely harder one with North Korea, responding to the sense among conservatives that Roh's government has strayed too far the other way on both counts.

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