Published on Dec 19th, 2007
AS VOTING ended in South Korea’s presidential election, exit polls indicated what most in the country had anyway expected: the opposition Grand National Party’s Lee Myung-bak was to be the country’s president. Mr Lee won a thumping endorsement, securing close to 50% of the vote in a 12-man presidential field. Mr Lee’s victory brightens the conservative GNP's prospects of also winning control of the legislature in elections next April.
So ends a decade of liberal rule by Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun. South Koreans are disillusioned with Mr Roh, who talked about improving their lot but failed to deliver robust economic growth. His divisive rhetoric angered many. “A president has to bring the country together,” Hyundai's chairman and a legislator, Chung Mong-joon, suggested. “Roh Moo-hyun divided the country.”
Many South Koreans believe that Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy’’ of being friendly towards North Korea, which continued under Mr Roh, brought them little in the way of security. Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship developed and tested nuclear bombs despite it. South Koreans suspect that vast amounts of money have been paid to the north in return for summits with the dictator. Mr Lee wants an end to aid if North Korea does not give up its nuclear-weapons programme. He intends to use six-party talks (with China, America, Japan, Russia and North Korea) to put pressure on the north.
Raised in poverty, like many of his 49m countrymen, Mr Lee has an appealing chutzpah. Voters evidently liked the 66-year-old's strong personal story: he overcame malnutrition, paid his own way through university by working as a rubbish collector, and eventually rose to become the boss of ten Hyundai affiliates. His pragmatism helped, too. He is not an old-guard conservative. He was arrested and jailed during his university days. As mayor of Seoul, the capital, he sought to beautify the city. He planted trees, widened pavements, created green public spaces and improved public transport.
Mr Lee’s last election rally was in the centre of Seoul beside the Cheonggyecheon stream. The revival and beautification of the 5.8km waterway through the city became a symbol of his success as mayor. For many voters his ability to graft a consensus among Seoul’s diverse interest groups, to complete the project, augurs well for his time in higher office.
As president Mr Lee says he will slash taxes and ease regulations in order to boost consumer spending. At a news conference the day before the poll he promised a “new era” of economic growth once he takes office in February. He even made specific predictions, suggesting that South Korea’s main stock index will rise to 3,000 one year into his presidency and will be at 5,000 when his five-year term ends. The Kospi closed at 1,861.47 on the day before the election.
If there is a cloud already on the horizon it concerns corruption. Mr Lee sees South Korea’s chaebol (conglomerates) as important allies in reviving the economy. Thus many suspect he will not press prosecutors to investigate alleged bribery and influence peddling at Samsung. Mr Lee, too, is under investigation for his role in an investment scheme that defrauded thousands. He protests that he “has never been involved in scandal as a CEO or as Seoul mayor” and blames his opponents for spreading propaganda against him. By the time Mr Lee is scheduled to take office, he promises, his name will be cleared.