Frontrunner for S Korean presidency denies fraud
Associated Press in Seoul
Rivals accused of smear tactics on eve of leadership poll
The frontrunner in South Korea's presidential polls asserted his innocence in financial-fraud allegations yesterday, the eve of the election.
Lee Myung-bak, of the conservative Grand National Party, also blasted rivals for smear tactics that he said would fail to halt his march to office.
Mr Lee appeared headed for an easy win in the vote today, his 66th birthday, with massive leads in opinion polls for months.
But his campaign suffered a public blow after the National Assembly voted on Monday to approve an independent investigation against him over alleged stock manipulation.
'Those who abused the legal system and their power will face a large backlash,' Mr Lee said yesterday. 'Even if they investigate me 10 times or 100 times, the results will not change.'
The popularity of Mr Lee, a former Hyundai executive and Seoul mayor, is largely attributed to a perception that he can inject new life into the economy after what has been viewed as a lacklustre performance under incumbent liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
'Have you been happy over the past five years?' Mr Lee asked more than 1,000 cheering supporters yesterday during a Seoul rally.
'If we have a capable leader, we won't be afraid of Japan and China, and we can move forward even though the world economy is in a difficult situation.'
The latest development in the financial allegations against Mr Lee surfaced after the liberal United New Democratic Party publicised a video showing him saying in 2000 that he had founded the firm at the centre of a stock manipulation case.
A Korean-American who was Mr Lee's former business associate has been indicted, but prosecutors this month absolved the candidate of responsibility.
Mr Lee has said the taped comments were taken out of context and flatly denied the allegations.
His opponents have seized on the scandal to try to tarnish Mr Lee and keep him from power.
'There has been no country in the world that has elected a criminal suspect as a president,' independent conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang said yesterday.
'President [Richard] Nixon, who was ousted after telling a lie, remains as the most humiliating president in US history.'
Liberal candidate Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party, a staunch advocate of engagement with North Korea, criticised Lee Myung-bak for having a cold war-era mindset that could hamper reconciliation with Pyongyang.
'I'll make us a young, dynamic country expanding its economic territory and spearheading the unity of Northeast Asia,' Mr Chung said. 'Peace is economy. The economy can change into peace and happiness.'
Experts predict the probe will not disrupt Mr Lee's ride towards the presidential Blue House. If he wins, he will end a decade of liberal rule in South Korea.
'Even if there is wrongdoing, we have to elect a person who can revive the economy,' said Lee Min-sung, a 22-year-old woman studying at a university.
The bill passed by Parliament authorises Mr Roh to name a special prosecutor who can take up to 40 days to investigate - meaning the probe would be completed before the February 25 inauguration.
Mr Lee has said that if he is found to have been involved in financial irregularities, he will abandon the presidency even if he wins.