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South Korea's Presidential Candidate Cleared of Fraud

The favorite to be South Korea's next president looked even more certain on Wednesday of winning this month's election after prosecutors cleared him of allegations of fraud.

The result of the probe into securities fraud, broadcast live on national television, removes what political analysts said was the only obstacle to Lee Myung-bak winning the Dec. 19 election to become the first conservative president in a decade of Asia's fourth largest economy.

"(We) have found no evidence supporting suspicion that Lee Myung-bak was involved in stock price manipulation," prosecutor Kim Hong-il told a nationally televised news conference. "Therefore there is no indictment against him."

Lee was cleared of two other fraud allegations. "Basically, I see Lee Myung-bak as having won the presidential race," said Jeong Chan-soo, executive director at policy research division at MIN Consulting. "There seems to be no reason for Lee's approval rating, currently already at 40 percent, to fall any more, especially after today's announcement."

Opinion polls consistently put Lee more than 20 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, a more right-wing conservative, and far ahead of the politically liberal heirs of outgoing and unpopular President Roh Moo-hyun.

Lee, a former top executive with the giant Hyundai Group, has pledged to roll back regulations on businesses and open up to foreign investors if he wins the single five-year term in the presidential Blue House.

Lee, who likes to describe himself as an "economy president", has also pledged to get tough with the country's combative labor unions and be much less tolerant of communist North Korea if it fails to honor an agreement to give up nuclear its weapons.

"We are very excited, we are very happy," one official with Lee's Grand National Party told Reuters after the prosecutors' announcement.

Much of Lee's popularity rests on his image as a "can do" leader during his days as a top businessman and later as mayor of Seoul, where he won praise for ripping up asphalt and laying down new patches of green space.

He has promised more infrastructure development, including a multi-billion dollar project to build a canal to boost fuel-efficient transport between the capital and the main port city Busan in the south.

A left-leaning daily, Hankyoreh, said in an editorial the only hope for liberals was for its two leading candidates to unite.

"As both candidates themselves have noted, if the country is going to prevent 'corrupt elements from taking power' the harsh fact of the matter is that there is no other choice but to narrow the alternatives down to one of the two of them," it wrote.

The leading liberal challenger and former TV anchor, Chung Dong-young, has struggled throughout the campaign to lift his approval rating above 15 percent.