South Korea presidential rivals in final push for votes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 6:45pm

The two rivals for South Korea’s presidency made a final pitch to voters on Tuesday – the eve of an election that looks set to go down to the wire and could produce the country’s first female leader.

The eventual winner of Wednesday’s ballot will face numerous foreign and domestic challenges, including a pugnacious North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly-ageing societies.

Ruling conservative party candidate Park Geun-hye is looking to make history as the first female president of a still male-dominated nation, and the first to be related to a former leader.

Park, 60, is the daughter of one of modern Korea’s most polarising figures, the late dictator Park Chung-hee who is both admired for dragging the country out of poverty and reviled for his ruthless suppression of dissent during 18 years of autocratic rule.

He was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979. Park’s mother had been killed five years earlier by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.

Standing between Park and the presidential Blue House is the liberal Moon Jae-in from the main opposition party, a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against the regime of Park’s father.

The last permitted opinion polls showed that Moon had eroded the small but clear lead Park enjoyed for much of the campaign, leaving the result too close to call.

After locking in the support of their respective conservative and liberal bases, the two candidates have actively wooed crucial centrist voters, resulting in significant policy overlap.

Both have talked of “economic democratisation” – a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities caused by rapid economic growth – and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.

Moon has been more aggressive in his proposals for reining in the power of the giant family-run conglomerates, or “chaebol” that dominate the economy and there are significant differences on North Korea.

While both have signalled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang, Park’s approach is far more cautious than Moon’s promise to resume aid without pre-conditions and seek an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Although South-North relations have not been a major campaign issue, the North’s long-range rocket launch last week – seen by critics as a disguised ballistic missile test – was a reminder of the unpredictable threat from across the border.

In her final national pitch at a televised press conference on Tuesday, the never-married Park promised a parental style of leadership that would steer the country through the challenges of the global economic crisis.

“I have no family to take care of and no children to pass wealth to. You, the people, are my family and your happiness is the reason that I stay in politics,” Park said.

“Like a mother who dedicates her life to her family, I will become the president who takes care of the lives of each one of you.

“Please open a new era under the country’s first female president with hope for change and reform,” she said.

Moon was more combative at a similar event, slamming Park’s ruling New Frontier Party as corrupt and incompetent.

“If you spare them punishment, past wrongs will be extended. We have to take up the cudgel and tomorrow is the very day to do so,” Moon said, making a special appeal for a strong turnout.

Moon is popular with younger voters while Park’s natural constituency is among older, more conservative Koreans, especially those who admired her father.

As older voters traditionally turn out in force, Moon’s campaign has pushed hard to ensure his supporters do likewise.

“To abstain is to turn a blind eye to the past five years of wrongs,” Moon said.

Both candidates had scheduled a last-day, multi-city campaign blitz on Tuesday.

Polling booths open early on Wednesday at 6am and close at 6pm.