South Koreans choose a new leader on Wednesday in an election shadowed by the ghosts of two dead presidents – the assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee and the left-wing Roh Moo-hyun, who took his own life.
The ballot is a face-off between Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye of the ruling conservative party, and Roh’s former chief of staff and close friend Moon Jae-in of the liberal opposition party.
The spectral presence of the two former presidents – and the powerful emotions they still provoke – means that the election will, in part, amount to a vote on the legacy of both men.
Park Chung-hee is probably the most polarising figure in South Korea’s history – either admired for leading the country out of poverty or reviled for the iron-fisted way he did so during 18 years of tough military rule.
He was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979.
Roh, a former human rights lawyer, promised a new start when he came to power in 2003 but his administration ended chaotically five years later – his party racked by scandal and infighting and his economic reforms shelved.
Fifteen months after leaving office, Roh committed suicide as a corruption investigation closed in on his family.
Moon and Park have fought the campaign over key issues such as economic reform, social welfare and job security. But in the public perception, they are both seen through the prism of their links to the former leaders.
“Park is the daughter of the symbol of Korean conservatism, while Moon is really the political alter ego of the symbol of Korean progressivism,” said Hahm Chai-bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
The last opinion polls allowed before polling day suggested that the race for the presidential Blue House could be extremely close, with Moon having eroded the small but clear lead enjoyed by Park for most of the campaign.
Park has pushed herself as the leader capable of reviving a slowing economy, while Moon has vowed to tackle concerns over the country’s growing wealth gap.
With the liberal camp squarely behind Moon and the conservatives united in supporting Park, the winner will be the candidate who can win over the undecideds – many of them in their 40s – who are concerned about both social equality and economic growth.
In order to woo that demographic, the two candidates have moved slightly to the centre and, in so doing, sought to place some distance between themselves and their ghostly shadows.
In Moon’s case, this meant publicly acknowledging the failings of the Roh administration and, in particular, its mishandling of the economy.
Park’s effort was far more dramatic.
In a strongly Confucian society that emphasises filial respect, she publicly acknowledged the excesses of her father’s regime and apologised to families of its victims.
“Essentially what we saw was the daughter and figurative son of these leaders forced to recant for some of the wrongdoings of their biological and political parents,” Hahm said.
Moon and Roh had shared a law practice together before the latter became president, and had focused on defending the rights of pro-democracy activists protesting against Park’s military rule.
Moon himself was briefly jailed and used that experience to attack Park right from the outset of his campaign.
“While I was suffering from poverty, she was living like a princess in the Blue House,” he told reporters back in June. “She was at the centre of dictatorship when I fought against dictatorship.”
Park left the presidential palace after her father was assassinated and began her political career in 1998 as a lawmaker in her home town.