Lee Myung-bak, the president-elect, swept to a massive victory despite scandal allegations and a tough Grand National Party primary. He vows to improve the economy. [YONHAP]
A decade of liberal rule ended in Korea yesterday as the Grand National Party’s Lee Myung-bak scored a landslide victory by the widest margin ever in a direct presidential election.
“I appreciate the people’s support from the bottom of my heart,” Lee said in a 10 p.m. press conference. “I will revive Korea’s economy and make sure that our nation will be united.”
The result marks a sea change from the last two administrations, both of which were headed by democracy campaigners who sought to distance the country from its authoritarian past.
“Following the eras of industrialization and democratization, I will lead Korea into a new era of advancement,” Lee has vowed. His single five-year term will begin on Feb. 25 next year.
The landslide victory was also a special gift for Lee, who celebrated his 66th birthday and 37th wedding anniversary on the same day he won the presidency.
Despite a series of corruption allegations, and a pending independent counsel probe ordered by the National Assembly into various charges, the former Seoul mayor and one-time CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction dominated opinion polls from the time he entered the race.
With the outcome never really in doubt, yesterday’s turnout of 62.9 percent was the lowest in any direct presdiential election. The figure has trended down since 1987, when turnout was 89.2 percent. In 1997, voter turnout was 80.7 percent, and it slumped to 70.8 percent in 2002.
“In the face of corruption scandals, Lee still won a landslide victory, and this shows the rage of voters toward left-wing government,” Lee Nae-young, a political science professor at Korea University, said yesterday. “Lee’s victory is the voters’ judgment on Roh Moo-hyun’s administration.”
As soon as voting ended at 6 p.m., exit polls by major broadcasters and polling companies were announced, declaring Lee the unofficial winner with about 50 percent of the vote.
A grim atmosphere settled quickly over about 100 United New Democratic Party lawmakers and officials watching TV as their hopes for a miracle by candidate Chung Dong-young faded quickly.
At 9:20 p.m. Chung appeared at a live press conference to accept his defeat. “I humbly accept the people’s choice,” he said in a muted voice. “I believe president-elect Lee will do a good job.”
Lee Hoi-chang, the two-time failed GNP candidate who ran yesterday as an independent, conceded his third defeat at 8:20 p.m. “I was again not chosen by the people, but I humbly accept the people’s decision,” Lee said. “I ask Lee Myung-bak to uphold the people’s wishes and correct the wrongs of the past administration.”
The Grand Nationals were in party mode. As soon as the exit polls aired, about 200 Lee supporters in front of the party headquarters in Yeouido applauded and cheered, waving national flags. “President Lee Myung-bak! President Lee Myung-bak!” they shouted repeatedly.
Shin Ji-ho, an adjunct professor at Sogang University and head of the civic group Liberty Union, part of the the New Right movement begun in 2005, said Korea has had several turning points in its modern history, and yesterday will be marked as one of them.
“The Republic of Korea was founded in 1948, and industrialization took place under Park Chung Hee starting in 1963,” Shin said. “We have been living in the era of democratization since Koreans established the current direct election system in 1987. With President Lee Myung-bak, Korea will enter a new era of advancement.”
Following Roh Tae-woo’s five-year tenure, Kim Young-sam, a right-wing pro-democracy leader, was elected in 1992. Only in 1997 did Korea make a left turn in the aftermath of the foreign exchange crisis, establishing a clear break with the years of military rule by elevating long-time dissident Kim Dae-jung to the Blue House, to be followed by Roh Moo-hyun.
Inter-Korean summits took place, and the focus of the nation’s economic policy changed from growth to redistribution of wealth and reform under the liberals.
By electing Lee, who is neither a liberal nor a traditional right-wing conservative, Koreans sent a clear message that the economy is now their prime concern.
“Over the past decade, the left-wing administrations said they would grow the economy by redistributing wealth, but when you look closely, the government paid nearly no attention to growth,” said Na Seong-lin, an economics and finance professor at Hanyang University. “Lee’s victory can be labeled as the emergence of the new right wingers.”
“The larger the gap, the stronger the mandate,” Jaung Hoon, a political science professor at Chung-Ang University, said. “His support is evenly distributed across generations and regions.”
“There can be no dispute over the winner,” said Park Sung-min, a political consultant. “The people clearly held the liberal administrations accountable for the past 10 years.”
By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter/ Choi Sang-yeon JoongAng Ilbo [firstname.lastname@example.org]