South Korean ruling party presidential candidate Park Geun Hye leads opposition nominee Moon Jae In in a close race to lead Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, exit polls showed.
Park, of the New Frontier Party, has 50.1 percent of the vote compared with 48.9 percent for Moon, of the Democratic United Party, according to a joint exit poll released by TV broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS after voting closed at 6 p.m. local time. The poll, conducted until 5 p.m., had a margin of error of plus or minus 0.8 percentage points.
An independent exit poll by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper’s cable-TV affiliate JTBC indicated a 0.2 percentage point lead for Park while a separate forecast by broadcaster YTN put Moon ahead with 49.7 percent to 53.5 percent, compared with 46.1 percent to 49.9 percent for Park.
A victory for Park, the daughter of the country’s longest-serving military dictator Park Chung Hee, would make her South Korea’s first female president. The winner will inherit an economy forecast to grow this year at the slowest pace since 2009, with fewer job prospects for younger voters and dissent over the power of the country’s conglomerates known as chaebols.
North Korea’s successful rocket launch last week complicated both candidates’ calls for greater engagement with leader Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian state.
Almost 41 million people were eligible to cast their ballots under cold, partly cloudy weather across South Korea. Turnout was 75.8 percent or 30.7 million, based on provisional figures at 7:10 p.m., the highest rate since 1997, the National Election Commission said on its website. The victor will take office Feb. 25, when President Lee Myung Bak’s single five-year term ends.
Moon’s camp remains hopeful despite the exit poll numbers, spokeswoman Jin Sun Mee said in an e-mailed statement.
“We were hoping to ride on the high turnout but it looks like this won’t be easy,” Jin said. “The numbers are still within the margin of error, so we still have hope.”
Moon, 59, cast his ballot at about 7 a.m. today with his wife and his mother at a voting station in the southern port city of Busan, according to an e-mailed statement from his party. He is monitoring the vote count from his home in Seoul.
“Man proposes and God disposes,” Moon said, adding that he slept well last night. “I’ve done everything that I can, so I now wait for the results with a light heart.”
“I believe that the wise public will open a new era for our country,” Park said when she voted near her home in Seoul’s Gangnam district.
The turnout may decide who wins, according to analysts including Kim Ji Yoon, the Asan Institute’s director of public opinion studies. Turnout above 70 percent indicates participation by more young people, who are more likely to vote for Moon, she said.
“Underneath the political apathy and general lack of voter participation, younger voters tend to be moderate, undecided or generally veer left of center and support Moon,” Kim said. “If voter turnout is high, Moon has a definite chance against Park, who faces a more inherent difficulty in trying to convert their generally liberal political leanings.”
In 2007, voter turnout was 63 percent, with voters in their 50s recording the highest participation rate of all age groups. The biggest bloc of voters is in their 40s, accounting for 21.8 percent of 40.5 million registered voters, according to the National Election Commission. Another 15.5 million voters are from age 19 through their 30s, while 16.2 million are over 50.
There’s little to separate the candidates’ economic policies. With voters demanding measures to reduce widening income disparity, Moon and Park have pledged to boost welfare spending, increase support for small-and medium-sized businesses and rein in the influence of chaebols.
While the 10 largest chaebols, including Samsung Group, account for more than half of the total market capitalization of the Korea Stock Exchange, the biggest 30 employ just 6 percent of the workforce. The nation’s richest 20 percent last year earned 7.86 times more than the bottom 20 percent.
Moon has called for chaebols’ existing and new cross-shareholdings to be banned to reduce the risk of monopolies, while Park advocates keeping existing shareholdings exempt to avoid hurting the economy.
South Korea’s economy is forecast by the central bank to grow 2.4 percent in 2012, the weakest since 2009. The won has climbed 7.4 percent against the dollar this year, an advance that risks undermining export competitiveness. Stocks have risen, with the benchmark Kospi Index up 9.2 percent.
On North Korea, both candidates say they will unconditionally resume dialogue with Kim Jong Un’s regime. Moon said he will invite North Korean officials to his inauguration and hold summit talks with Kim by the end of next year. Park, while also willing to meet the country’s leader, is more cautious with promises of re-engagement, emphasizing the importance of national security and “dialogue based on trust.”
Park and Moon both called on North Korea to refrain from testing a long-range rocket, which Kim’s regime ignored with its Dec. 12 launch.
The candidates’ careers are connected through Park’s father, who oversaw South Korea’s economic rise through the growth of automaking, steel and shipping and promoting the chaebols. Park senior took power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled until 1979, when he was shot dead by his security chief. Park Geun Hye served as her father’s first lady for five years from the age of 22, after her mother was killed in a North Korean attempt to assassinate the president.
Moon was jailed in 1975 for leading street protests against the Park government, and was then assigned to a front-line position in a special operations unit during his military service. He later served as chief of staff to President Roh Moo Hyun, who was in office from 2003 to 2008.