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South Korea's Presidential Campaign Nears End

  • Kurt Achin

South Koreans are just hours away from heading to the polls to elect a president. It is not the most suspenseful of votes - the conservative front-runner has been assumed to be the easy winner for weeks. However, last-minute accusations of alleged corruption on the front-runner's part have added some drama to the campaign - and possibly, to the aftermath. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

"Fighting!" chanted former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak and his advisors at a press conference on Tuesday. The borrowed English word is popular among South Koreans as a way to root for favorite sports teams - or, in this case, political candidates.

But for Lee, the nominee of the conservative Grand National Party, fighting may no longer be necessary in order to become South Korea's next president. With his recent polling numbers hovering at about 50 percent, he is seen by most experts and average Koreans as a shoo-in (a sure thing).

On Tuesday, Lee asked voters not just to hand him victory, but a decisive mandate.

He asks voters to "back him up," and give him more than half the vote.

Lee says he needs that kind of mandate to get the country's economy moving again. The former Seoul mayor and business executive has garnered popular support by promising lower taxes, more jobs, and a large boost in economic growth.

Lee's two main rivals are trying to focus the voters' attention on the corruption allegations against him.

Prosecutors last week cleared Lee of charges that he profited through stock price manipulation using a U.S. business venture called BBK.

However, parliament on Monday approved an independent counsel to investigate the allegation further. That was a day after a videotape surfaced in which Lee describes himself as BBK's founder - contradicting weeks of denials that he had anything to do with the company.

Chung Dong-young, the United New Democrat Party candidate who is predicted to be a distant second in Wednesday's vote, calls Lee a liar.

He says electing Lee as the country's leader would dishonor modern South Korea's 60 years of history.

Lee Hoi-chang, the conservative independent who holds third place in the final polls, says Lee Myung-bak has dragged his own party down.

He says Lee Myung-bak has dishonored the Grand National Party and changed South Korea into a haven of special investigations. Lee Hoi-chang broke away from the Grand National Party as a response to frontrunner Lee's alleged corruption.

Few South Koreans believe the investigation will deprive Lee of a decisive victory on Wednesday. Legal experts, however, say it could take the country into uncharted waters after election day.

They note that South Korean presidents are immune from criminal prosecution, but the law is much less clear for presidents-elect. If the independent counsel finds enough evidence to indict Lee before the presidential inauguration scheduled for February 25, he may yet face charges.

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