PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 November, 2002, 12:00am

SOMETHING HAPPENED in South Korea last week that politicians elsewhere in Asia can learn from. With the presidential election due on December 19, the main opposition candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, of the Grand National Party, looked an easy winner in a three-way race. The two other major contenders, Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Mong-joon, decided that if they both stayed in the race neither would win. The only chance of stopping Mr Lee, they reasoned, was if one dropped out.

This was a lesson they learned from Korean political history. In 1987, the two pro-democracy candidates, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both insisted on running, leading to the predictable electoral victory of Roh Tae-woo, protege of the military strongman, General Chun Doo-hwan. At the time, both Kims considered themselves more important than their common cause, leading to their defeat.

This year, a similar situation emerged. With President Kim Dae-jung ineligible to seek re-election, his Millennium Democratic Party selected as its candidate Mr Roh, a former legislator and cabinet member. However, Mr Chung, president of the Korea Football Association and son of the founder of the Hyundai business group, Chung Ju-yung, announced his candidacy following the World Cup soccer tournament, which saw his popularity soar.

Polls showed the 67-year-old Mr Lee, a former Supreme Court justice whose party controls a majority in parliament, winning in a three-way race. Mr Lee has been critical of Mr Kim's 'sunshine policy' of rapprochement with North Korea.

Not easy to decide candidate

However, in a two-way race, the situation would be different. For example, according to a Dong-a newspaper survey, either candidate would defeat the conservative Mr Lee - Mr Roh winning 40.6 per cent to his 37.2 per cent, and Mr Chung scoring 42.1 per cent to 37.4 per cent for Mr Lee.

It was not easy for the two men to agree on an arrangement under which one of them would drop out in favour of the other. Ultimately, they decided on a television debate, after which public-opinion surveys would be commissioned to gauge their respective public support.

The debate was held last Friday. Some newspaper surveys showed Mr Chung had done better than Mr Roh. However, the two candidates were going not by newspaper surveys but by their own polls. One of them showed Mr Roh with a decisive margin while another showed him slightly ahead. As a result, on Sunday Mr Chung bowed out and will help manage Mr Roh's campaign.

In a few weeks, we will know whether this effort will stop Mr Lee. At the very least, it has created a real fight for the presidency rather than making the race a foregone conclusion.

I said at the beginning of this column that politicians elsewhere in Asia could learn from the Korean experience. I had in mind Taiwan, where President Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), faces another electoral contest in 2004. The last time around, in 2000, he narrowly squeaked through because of a three-way race in which independent candidate James Soong and the Kuomintang's Lien Chan split the vote.

No such agreement in Taiwan

In fact, the only other time Mr Chen had won a major election was in 1994 when he ran for mayor of Taipei in another three-way race, this time involving the Kuomintang and the New Party. Both Mr Lien and Mr Soong intend to contest the next presidential election and if that happens it will all but guarantee a second term for the incumbent.

This time, however, Mr Lien and Mr Soong have agreed in principle to field a common candidate. However, they have not agreed on how to decide which one of them should run.

Mr Soong's camp, the People First Party, has suggested that the man most likely to defeat President Chen should be the common candidate, and says that opinion surveys should be used to see which one has more voter support. However, Mr Lien, who came in third last time, has rejected this, saying opinion surveys are unreliable.

So far, the prognosis for the two parties actually fielding a joint candidate is poor. They also agreed to support a common candidate to run for mayor of Kaohsiung next month, but that flopped badly, with the parties now backing different candidates in the attempt to unseat Mayor Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, of the DPP. Mr Hsieh is not in a strong position, but in a multi-candidate race he just might squeak through.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator