SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea may be set to elect its first woman president on Wednesday, the daughter of the country's former military ruler, returning the 60-year old conservative to the presidential palace where she served as her father's first lady in the 1970s.
Exit polls released by three broadcasters after the polls closed showed Park had 50.1 percent of the vote against 48.9 percent for her left-wing challenger in a very tight race where the predicted outcome was well within the margin of error.
If she does win, Park will take office for a mandatory single term in February 2013 and will face an immediate challenge from a hostile North Korea and deal with an economy in which annual growth rates have fallen to about two percent from an average of 5.5 percent in the past 50 years.
She is unmarried and has no children, saying that her life will be devoted to her country.
"I trust her. She will save our country," said Park Hye-sook, 67, who voted in an affluent Seoul district, earlier in the day.
"Her father ... rescued the country," said the housewife and grandmother, who is no relation to the candidate, reflecting the admiration many older voters feel for former president Park Chung-hee, which has translated into support for his daughter.
A clear picture of the results may not come until 11 p.m. (1400 GMT). Although the margin of victory indicated by the exit polls could easily disappear, Park's camp greeted the outcome with cheers.
Park has spent 15 years in politics as a leading legislator in the country's ruling Saenuri party, although her policies remain sketchy.
Park has a "Happiness Promotion Committee" and her campaign was launched as a "National Happiness Campaign", a slogan she has since changed to "A Prepared Woman President".
NEGOTIATE WITH NORTH
Park has said she would negotiate with Kim Jong-un, the youthful leader of North Korea who recently celebrated a year in office, but wants the South's isolated and impoverished neighbour to give up its nuclear weapons programme as a precondition for aid, something Pyongyang has refused to do.
The two Koreas remain technically at war after an armistice ended their 1950-53 conflict and Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the North's current leader, ordered several assassination attempts on Park's father, one of which resulted in her mother being shot to death in 1974.
Park herself met Kim Jong-un's father, the late leader Kim Jong-il, and declared he was "comfortable to talk to" and he seemed to be someone "who would keep his word".
The North successfully launched a long-range rocket last week in what critics said was a test of technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile and has recently stepped up its attacks on Park, describing her as holding a "grudge" against it and seeking "confrontation", code for war.
Park remains a firm supporter of South Korea's controversial trade pact with the United States her opponent has threatened to repeal and looks set to continue the free-market policies of her predecessor, although she has said she will seek to spread wealth more evenly.
Her left of centre challenger, Moon Jae-in, had pledged to tackle the growing power of the country's vast export-oriented industrial conglomerates, the so-called chaebol, but Park has stressed their value in creating jobs.
The biggest of all the chaebol Samsung Group, which produces the world's top selling smartphone as well as televisions, computer chips and ships, has sales equivalent to about a fifth of South Korea's national output.
(Writing by David Chance; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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