SEOUL (Reuters) - Right-wing businessman Lee Myung-bak overcame doubts about his ethics to win South Korea’s presidential election by a landslide on Wednesday with promises to make voters better off and to stand up to North Korea.
Lee’s wide margin of victory put to rest concerns in his camp that a fresh probe into allegations of fraud might deter voters.
“I will bring an economy that is now in crisis back to life,” Lee told cheering supporters.
A widely respected exit poll by KBS TV and MBC TV stations gave Lee 50.3 percent of the vote, in line with the huge lead he has had in opinion ratings throughout the campaign.
His main rival, left-of-centre Chung Dong-young, conceded defeat 3-½ hours after voting ended.
And outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun congratulated Lee who, with 82 percent of the official counting completed, had 47.8 percent of the vote. Media reports said many of the ballots still to be counted were from Lee strongholds.
The official tally so far gives Chung just 27 percent -- the largest gap by far since democratic elections began 20 years ago.
“The issue was the economy. Nothing else really mattered this time,” said office worker Han Jae-kwang.
Analysts say Chung was unable to remove the taint of his political links to Roh, who has been deeply unpopular during much of his five-year term and is seen as having failed to breathe life into the world’s 13th largest economy.
Victory by the former Hyundai Group executive and ex-Seoul mayor brings to an end 10 years of liberal leaders in presidential Blue House.
After the vote, on the same day as both his 66th birthday and 37th wedding anniversary, Lee attended a rally of supporters at a stream in central Seoul that he turned into a hugely popular park when he was mayor of the capital and which has come to symbolise his can-do style.
Analysts say it was this, plus his promise to boost the economy and his contrast to Roh that lured voters to the father of four, who rose from abject poverty to the head at age 36 of what became one of the country’s biggest construction firms.
“I hope you don’t think I don’t express it (my thanks to you) enough. I hope you read my heart,” he told party officials.
“If I had big eyes you could read it from my eyes, but unfortunately I don‘t,” he joked, a reference to his narrow eyes.
The projected result will make Lee the first to win more than 50 percent of the vote since long-time dictator Park Chung-hee in the early 1970s.
It is also one of the lowest turnouts in South Korea’s presidential elections at around 60 percent, versus about 70 percent in 2002, due to the predictable outcome, analysts said.
But his victory is tempered with the prospect of being the first-president elect under criminal investigation after parliament this week voted to appoint a special investigator to look into charges he was involved with an investment firm suspected of swindling millions of dollars from investors.
He denies the charges and even if he is implicated, the probe is unlikely to be resolved before the Feb. 25 inauguration. A sitting president cannot be prosecuted for such crimes.
Lee, who considers himself a pragmatic rather than ideological leader, is likely to be less generous to North Korea, which has seen a strong flow of aid under the Roh government. He wants future largesse tied more tightly to progress the North makes in ending its nuclear arms programme.
Financial markets have been buoyed by Lee’s pledges to make life easier for foreign investors and cut through the red tape he sees as stifling local business, especially the giant conglomerates that were behind South Korea’s economic rise.
Lee, nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his hard-charging style, wants to bring 7 percent growth. That compares with an average of a little over 4 percent during Roh’s rule.
But economists say Lee’s target is a tall order for a country that is coming under increasing competitive pressure from neighbouring China and Japan while one of its biggest export markets, the United States, is looking at an economically tough 2008. (Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Kim Yeon-hee, Jessica Kim, Yoo Choonsik and Reuters Television)