South Koreans voted today in a tight and potentially historic presidential election that could result in Asia’s fourth-largest economy selecting its first female leader.
Voters faced a clear choice between the ruling conservative party candidate Park Geun-Hye and her liberal rival from the main opposition party, Moon Jae-In, with opinion polls unable to separate the two.
The eventual occupant of the presidential Blue House will have to deal with a belligerent North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.
Park, 60, was looking to make history by becoming the first female President of a still male-dominated nation, and the first to be related to a former leader.
She 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 was killed five years earlier by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.
Moon, who was chief of staff to the late left-wing President Roh Moo-Hyun, is the son of North Korean refugees and a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against the Park Chung-Hee regime.
Polling booths opened at 6:00 am (2100 GMT yesterday) on a bright, chilly winter’s morning, with the temperature hovering around -10 degree Celsius.
A national holiday was declared to allow maximum turnout among the 40 million-plus registered voters.
“It’s freezing cold, but I plead with the people to come out and vote to open a new era for this country,” Park, wrapped up in a long coat and red scarf, said as she cast her ballot in Seoul.
After locking in the support of their respective conservative and liberal bases, the two candidates put a lot of campaign effort into wooing 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.
“This is the only way for the people to change the world,” Moon said as he voted in the southern city of Busan.