Lee Wins South Korea's Presidential Elections
Former Hyundai CEO Lee Myung-bak, known as "The Bulldozer" for his determination to get things done, rolled over all opposition and lingering financial fraud allegations to win South Korea's presidency Wednesday, ending a decade of liberal rule.
Lee, who turned 66 on election day and has also served as the mayor of Seoul, earned a landslide victory on a wave of discontent for incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun, whom many believe bungled the economy and dragged down the Asian nation's rapid growth.
The move into South Korea's presidential Blue House by Lee's conservative Grand National Party was expected to herald closer ties with the U.S. and a more critical view of relations with communist North Korea, which has been lavished with aid by Roh's administration.
The National Election Commission said Lee had 48.7 percent of the vote after all ballots were counted. Liberal Chung Dong-young was a distant second with 26.2 percent. The candidate with the most votes wins and there are no run-offs.
It was the biggest margin of victory in any South Korean presidential election. Turnout was a record low 63 percent of 37.7 million eligible voters.
Voters apparently wanted change so badly that they were willing to overlook accusations of ethical lapses that dogged Lee throughout his campaign.
Just days before the election, the parliament approved an independent counsel investigation into alleged stock manipulation by Lee that is to be completed before the Feb. 25 inauguration. He has said he will step down if found at fault.
"After all, the people chose the economy over morality," the Maeil Business Newspaper wrote in an editorial for its Thursday editions.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey congratulated Lee on his victory and stressed the importance of the countries' close cooperation at international talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons.
heads to office amid progress in the long-running standoff over North Korea's atomic program, fostered by U.S. political and economic concessions to Pyongyang.
The president-elect is expected to tie aid to continued compliance with international demands in the nuclear dispute in line with Washington's wishes, but make no dramatic change in assistance to the North as long as it remains on the path to disarmament.
Lee emphasized the economy in his campaign with a "747" pledge -- promising to raise annual growth to 7 percent, double the country's per capita income to US$40,000 and lift South Korea to among the world's top seven economies. He also proposed a "Grand Canal" linking Seoul to the southern port city of Busan that would improve transport and be a tourist attraction.
"Today, the people gave me absolute support. I'm well aware of the people's wishes," Lee told supporters at his party's headquarters. "I will serve the people in a very humble way. According to the people's wishes, I will save the nation's economy that faces a crisis."
President Roh congratulated Lee on his win. "We respect the people's choice shown in this election," presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said in a statement.
Hundreds of supporters watching the results on a giant TV in front of the Grand National Party's headquarters burst into song Wednesday evening as Lee's victory became clear.
"I am very happy and it is like retaking democracy after a decade" of liberal rule, said Park Mi-won, a housewife in her 50s.
Lee rose from the poverty that gripped the peninsula after the fratricidal 1950-53 Korean War and worked as a janitor to put himself through college.
He first gained prominence as head of Hyundai's construction unit, and spent some 30 years at the conglomerate where he earned the nickname "Bulldozer" for his unswerving drive to overcome challenges. In one example, he completely took apart a bulldozer to figure out why it kept breaking down.
As Seoul's mayor from 2002-2006, he undertook beautification projects in the city that earned him environmental credibility and were viewed as redemption for earlier eyesores he built with Hyundai in the country's haste to develop.
"I feel good that the right person was elected. I voted for him because he is an economic president," said Lee Myung-ja, 60, a housewife who was among crowds gathered to watch vote results near a restored stream in central Seoul that was Lee's landmark project as mayor. "I hope President Lee Myung-bak will focus on economic growth so as to make the people better-off."
Taking the luster off Lee's victory were lingering allegations of involvement in a stock manipulation case where a former business associate faces criminal charges for illegal gains of millions of dollars (euros). A video released Sunday by his liberal rivals showed Lee saying in 2000 that he founded the firm at the center of the case.
Lee has said the taped comments were taken out of context and denied the allegations, but consented to the independent counsel to clear his name -- and has now become the country's first president-elect to face a criminal probe.
By South Korean law, a president-elect can be prosecuted but he would receive immunity from most criminal lawsuits after inauguration.