A South Korean businessman-turned-politician won the conservative opposition's presidential primary yesterday, cementing his position as a front-runner ahead of the December election race against liberals aligned with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai chief executive officer and Seoul mayor, is already leading in national opinion polls as the country has grown weary of Roh's leadership amid a sagging economy.
In the conservative Grand National Party's primary, Lee beat Park Geun-hye -- daughter of a former military ruler who would have been the country's first-ever female president -- by 81,084 votes to 78,632.
Voting in the primary included some 185,000 party delegates, ordinary members and selected citizens, and their ballots were combined with the outcome of an opinion poll of about 6,000 people to determine the winner.
"The GNP and I will hold hands with all who wish to join in our goals to achieve regime change and build a world-leading country," Lee said to the cheers of supporters chanting his name at a Seoul auditorium. "We will regain the government. We will start a new Korea."
Park conceded defeat and called for the candidates to lay aside differences that emerged in the primary.
The presidential election could change the course of South Korea's economy, Asia's fourth-largest, and affect Seoul's relations with North Korea.
Lee, 65, is viewed as a get-the-job-done businessman, having spent 15 years at the helm of various companies in the Hyundai Group. While Seoul mayor from 2002 to last year, he pushed through an ambitious project to rejuvenate downtown Seoul and uncover a long-hidden stream to create a new cultural oasis in the capital.
His campaign has encountered hitches, however, as Lee has come under suspicion for alleged real estate speculation and other irregularities in amassing a fortune of 33.1 billion won (US$34.8 million).
For his presidential platform, Lee has championed a project to create a "Grand Canal" down the peninsula to link Seoul with the port city of Busan, lowering transport costs and creating a new tourist attraction.
Support for Roh has plummeted amid spreading economic malaise, where spiraling living and real estate costs have left citizens feeling their paychecks are not stretching as far as they once did.
Conservatives have also criticized Roh's policy of engaging with North Korea, where he has followed the "sunshine policy" of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung in fostering warmer ties and providing aid to Seoul's longtime rival while downplaying differences.
The conservatives have called for more conditions to be placed on relations with the North.