Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye waves to supporters in Seoul on Wednesday. Park defeated Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party by a larger-than-expected margin. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Conservative Park Geun-hye clinched a climactic election victory Wednesday to become South Korea’s first female president on the back of pledges for political reform and measured economic democratization.
The 60-year-old candidate of the ruling Saenuri Party won the race by a larger margin than those predicted by the most recent opinion surveys and exit polls.
She beat progressive rival Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, who campaigned for more drastic reform in local conglomerates and a sharper boost in welfare spending.
With all votes counted as of 5:40 a.m., Park had 51.6 percent against Moon's 48 percent. The gap exceeded 1.08 million ballots, with the president-elect winning 15.77 million votes out of 30.72 million cast, compared to 14.69 million for the DUP contender.
Park will succeed President Lee Myung-bak of the same party as Korea’s 18th president, realizing her dream of leading the country that her late father Park Chung-hee once ruled for 18 years.
“It is a victory brought by the aspiration of the people to overcome crisis and resurrect the economy. I will become a president who is devoted to the public livelihood and keeps her promises,” Park said before a cheering crowd of jubilant supporters in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul. They gathered to celebrate her win despite the freezing weather, chanting “President Park Geun-hye” and waving Taegeukgi.
The president-elect is expected to bolster the alliance with the U.S. while seeking improved strategic ties with China. She has expressed firm resolve on her intolerance to North Korea’s provocations, the most recent being its Dec. 12 rocket launch. Park, however, has also expressed willingness to better cooperate with Pyongyang to defrost highly strained inter-Korean relations.
Her emphasis on balanced growth and welfare appeared to have struck a chord with the swing voters as the country faces a challenging year ahead amid a slumping economy, frosty ties with North Korea, simmering feuds with Japan and a growing rivalry between the U.S. and China.
It was a day of victory for the conservatives, with Hong Joon-pyo of the Saenuri Party winning in the election for South Gyeongsang Province governor, and conservative-leaning former education minister Moon Yong-lin being elected as Seoul City education superintendent.
Looking downhearted yet composed, Moon congratulated Park at his press conference.
“I admit defeat. But, it is my defeat not the defeat of all the people who want new politics,” Moon said.
“I congratulate president-elect Park Geun-hye. I hope Park will implement politics of integration and harmony, and the public will give much support to Park.”
Moon put up a formidable challenge against the solid frontrunner, largely because former independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo joined his rally at the last minute after a botched single candidacy negotiation that led to Ahn’s withdrawal.
Ahn, who cast his vote earlier in the day, left for San Francisco for a long-term trip, reportedly to design his next step as a politician.
“I hope that we can open a new future of the Republic of Korea, with the winner embracing the loser and the losing side accepting the result of the election and cooperating with the new government,” said the former professor, who had spearheaded the drive for political reform. Ahn also apologized for “failing to fulfill the people’s desire,” adding he will be seeking for the next step.
The high voter turnout of 75.8 percent reflected heightened voter attention sparked by fierce campaigning featuring months of clashes over history, ideology and appraisals of past and incumbent governments.
The poll was conducted from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a total of 40,507,842 eligible voters.
Regional biases continued to play into the election results with Park securing overwhelming triumphs in the traditional strongholds of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province.
Park’s successes in the metropolitan and Gangwon regions, which usually favor the opposition, also boosted her win.
The generational divide between progressive-leaning voters in their 20s and 30s and conservative-leaning ones in their 50s and 60s was also one of the key characteristics of this year’s election, which prompted the first rise in voter turnout since the introduction of the direct election system in 1987. The respective ratio was 89.2 percent in 1987, 81.9 percent in 1992, 80.7 percent in 1997, 70.8 percent in 2002 and 63.0 percent in 2007.
It was a second victory for her and her party this year, following the surprise win against the DUP in the April general election, propelled by her leadership that effectively seized upon citizens’ desire for economic democratization and political reform.
Cheong Wa Dae congratulated Park on her victory.
“(The presidential office) expects the Republic of Korea’s great choice today to lead to a grand national integration and people’s happiness,” it said in a press release.
“The Lee Myung-bak government will focus on state management until the end of its term while only trying to better serve the people.”
Park joins a short list of female leaders around the world, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
But she has little time to celebrate.
The daughter of the late dictator faces a daunting task of steering the country through a deepened political divide, a global economic slowdown and a fast-evolving security landscape in Northeast Asia.
“The first testing ground for the presidential-elect will be through the formation of the transition committee that shows what message the new president is sending to the people and exposes the key figures in the upcoming administration,” said Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership.
Politics professor Yun Seong-yi of Kyung Hee University pointed to Park’s leadership style.
“Park has constantly faced criticism and doubt over her leadership style that is hierarchical and enclosed. She will need to adopt visible moves to attenuate such concerns,” Yun said, adding that the formation of her Cabinet and any participation of pro-Park members will be among the indicators.
Park’s win came as dramatically as her life had been.
Born as the eldest daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, her reluctance to acknowledge her father’s iron-fisted rule has been her weakest link.
Since the assassination of her father in 1979, Park spent her late 20s and 30s out of the spotlight, which generated several rumors and speculations about her extraordinary life.
She entered politics in 1998 by joining the Grand National Party. During her 15 years as a politician, she served as GNP chairwoman multiple times to lead the party through crises.
Upon her presidential bid in July, Park stuck to her strikingly calm and principle-oriented approach throughout the intensified partisan strife over primary rules, rising calls for her controversial interpretation of history, and even the death of her long-time aide Lee Choon-sang in a car crash.
The only occasions in which she lost composure in public were during the three installments of television debates with her counterparts. Her first live TV standoff exposed her as less meticulous than her rivals as she failed to hide her frustration at her better-versed opponents’ repeated attacks. The incidents, however, were apparently not enough to topple her front-runner status.
Park’s agenda set throughout the campaign period largely overlapped that of Moon, both promising to enhance the people’s livelihoods and realize political reform.
Her North Korea policy and chaebol-related measures, however, stood in stark contrast, as she emphasized a gradual approach to the communist state as opposed to Moon’s grand gesture of immediate reconciliation. She also pledged to focus on curbing irregularities of chaebol, rather than executing fundamental reforms as suggested by her liberal contender.
Negative campaigns were in full swing toward the end of the race, with allegations of illicit electioneering, such as the DUP’s claim of interference by the National Intelligence Service, and doubts over Moon’s security stance concerning the recognition of the Northern Limit Line, the de-facto West Sea border with North Korea.
Her political reform pledges, meanwhile, are more drastic, with promises of fewer privileges for lawmakers, reduced power of the central party, and a revision to the Constitution to introduce a four-year, two-term presidency.
As for welfare, Park pledges to offer free child-care to all families with children under age 5 and increase health insurance coverage. Experts, however, point to the lack of detailed planning for resources.
By Lee Joo-hee (email@example.com)
Choi He-suk, Song Sang-ho, Bae Hyun-jung, Shin Hyon-hee and Samuel Songhoon Lee contributed to this report. ― Ed.