Conservative wins South Korea presidency by landslide: exit polls

Other News Materials 19 December 2007 14:23 (UTC +04:00)

( AFP ) - A conservative former tycoon who promises to reinvigorate South Korea's economy and take a tougher line with the North won a landslide victory in presidential elections Wednesday, TV exit polls said.

Two polls, released just after voting ended at 6:00 pm (0900 GMT), said Lee Myung-Bak of the opposition Grand National Party had won around half of total votes cast.

The exit polls put Lee around 25 points clear of his nearest rival, Chung Dong-Young of the liberal pro-government United New Democratic Party (UNDP).

Rightwing independent Lee Hoi-Chang was placed third with between 13 and 14 percent.

Official results were expected by 10:00 pm. The winner will be inaugurated on February 25 replacing incumbent President Roh Moo-Hyun.

Lee, who turned 66 on polling day, has won broad support despite an upcoming fraud investigation.

He would be the nation's first leader from a business background as well as the first president-elect to face a criminal inquiry.

Koreans grappling with high youth unemployment, an ever-widening income gap and soaring property prices had put Lee way ahead of his rivals in the last legally permitted opinion polls last week.

State prosecutors cleared him early this month of involvement in a 2001 share-rigging fraud involving his former business partner, an issue which had dogged his campaign.

But apparent new video evidence surfaced Sunday of Lee's past connection to a suspect firm, prompting rivals in parliament to vote for an inquiry by an independent prosecutor.

A Lee victory could mean weeks of political uncertainty before he takes office as the probe gets under way. But if the exit polls are correct, many voters are prepared to accept that.

"I saw the video clip but I don't care about anything else but my livelihood," said a small restaurant owner who gave his name as Han. "My business is so bad these days."

Turnout was predicted to be the lowest ever for a presidential poll. Koreans appeared either to see the race as in the bag for the GNP's Lee or to have been turned off by a mud-slinging campaign.

Ski resorts and country parks were crowded as people took advantage of the public holiday declared for election days.

Despite the twists and turns in the share scandal, many still see Lee as having the best background to boost the economy.

The man once nicknamed the "bulldozer" rose from childhood poverty to become a Hyundai construction executive and mayor of Seoul, where he pushed through an ambitious and hugely popular waterway beautification scheme.

Lee's "747" campaign pledge aims to achieve seven percent growth, increase per capita income to 40,000 dollars and make South Korea the world's seventh largest economy by encouraging market forces.

He vows to promote investment through deregulation and tax adjustments.

"The economy has been in bad shape. It has been too tough to run a small business," said one of his supporters, Keon Sun-Ok.

Lee accuses the current Roh government of pampering North Korea with unconditional aid. He says he would offer it massive help but strictly tied to denuclearisation.

His alleged ethnical lapses have been a focus of his rivals' campaigns, and Chung on Wednesday described the vote as a choice between "truth and lies."

However, the UNDP candidate has suffered from his past membership of the unpopular Roh government