The two rivals for South Korea’s presidency made a final pitch to voters yesterday on the eve of an election that looks set to go down to the wire and could produce the country’s first female leader.
The eventual winner of today’s ballot is to face numerous foreign and domestic challenges, including a pugnacious North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly aging societies.
Ruling New Frontier Party candidate Park Geun-hye is looking to make history as the first female South Korean president of a still male-dominated nation, and the first to be related to a former leader.
Park, 60, is the daughter of one of modern South Korea’s most polarizing figures: The late South Korean leader 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 boss in 1979. Park Geun-hye’s mother had been killed five years earlier by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.
Standing between Park Geun-hye and the presidential Blue House is the liberal Moon Jae-in from the main opposition Democratic United Front Party, who is a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against the regime of Park Geun-hye’s father.
The last permitted opinion polls showed that Moon had eroded the small, but clear lead that Park Geun-hye enjoyed for much of the campaign, leaving the result too close to call.
After locking in the support of their respective conservative and liberal bases, the two candidates have actively wooed crucial centrist voters, resulting in significant policy overlap.
Both have talked of “economic democratization” — a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities caused by rapid economic growth — and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.
Moon has been more aggressive in his proposals for reining in the power of the giant family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, that dominate the economy and there are significant differences on North Korea.
While both have signaled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang, Park Geun-hye’s approach is far more cautious than Moon’s promise to resume aid without preconditions and seek an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Although South-North relations have not been a major campaign issue, the North’s long-range rocket launch last week — seen by critics as a disguised ballistic missile test — was a reminder of the unpredictable threat from across the border.
Moon is popular with younger voters, while Park Geun-hye’s natural constituency is among older, more conservative South Koreans, especially those who admired her father.
As older voters traditionally turn out in force, Moon’s campaign has pushed hard to ensure his supporters do likewise.