Left and right fight it out in the shadow of the favourite

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am

In the final part of our series in the run-up to today's South Korean election, Andrew Salmon looks at the challengers to candidate Lee Myung-bak

As South Koreans head to the ballot boxes today, conservative candidate Lee Myung-bak is clearly the man to beat.

But supporters of liberal candidate Chung Dong-young and hardline right-winger Lee Hoi-chang are praying that with the frontrunner facing last-minute fraud allegations, their men are back in the running.

Mr Chung, 54, is a good-looking graduate of Britain's University of Wales. He gained national fame as a reporter in 1995 with a tearful report from the scene of the Sampoong Department Store disaster in which more than 500 people died.

Entering politics, he became chairman of the liberal Uri Party, astutely steering it through President Roh Moo-hyun's impeachment crisis in 2004. He later became unification minister and met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, but Mr Chung has since broken with the deeply unpopular Mr Roh and the shattered Uri Party. He is a founder member of his current political vehicle, the United New Democratic Party.

His slogan is 'A nation of happy families', but the most prominent section of his website features news on Lee Myung-bak's alleged fraud. Indeed, much of Mr Chung's electioneering has been taken up with attacks on Lee Myung-bak's ethics. In a televised debate on Sunday, he demanded Mr Lee exit the race.

Beyond that, the key points of his platform are increasing engagement with the North and the creation of a more equitable society in the South.

In a show of the sort of opportunism common in Korean politics - which remains driven by personality rather than policy - he called on opposing candidates to join him.

The candidate running third in the polls, Lee Hoi-chang (no relation to Lee Myung-bak) is almost the exact opposite of Mr Chung and, as an old-guard, establishment figure, is a different man to the brash, self-made frontrunner. The scion of an elite family, Lee Hoi-chang, 72, is a former Supreme Court judge who has lost the last two elections as the conservative party's leader.

Many thought he had retired from politics, so the nation was astonished when he threw his hat into the ring as a conservative independent late in the race. His former political base, the Grand National Party, or GNP, was infuriated, worrying that he would split the right-wing vote. Ironically, his entry may have helped the GNP: the North's propaganda machine has redirected its fire away from Lee Myung-bak to Lee Hoi-chang.

Lee Hoi-chang's flagship policy is a hard line on North Korea. He has also vowed to clean up corrupt politics: His nickname - 'Bamboo' - indicates a figure who remains upright despite strong winds.

Non-mainstream candidates include independent Moon Kuk-hyun, a former businessman with ratings of around 10 per cent. Though respected, he has suffered from the lack of a political machine.

Labour leader Gwon Young-ghil, of the minority Democratic Labour Party, a perennial also-ran, is a hardline leftist with ratings of 2 per cent.

The race's most colourful entrant, however, is probably Huh Kyung-young, a would-be messianic figure who claims to have an IQ of 430. His policies include calls for the relocation of the United Nations headquarters from New York to Panmunjon, the truce village in the inter-Korean demilitarised zone.

Leading by far
Support rates according to a poll published in the daily Chosun newspaper on December 13, the last allowed by law before the election.

Lee Myung-bak
Chung Dong-young
Lee Hoi-chang