South Korea party votes on presidential favorite

By Jon Herskovitz, SEOUL, Reuters

South Korea’s leading party voted to pick between the country’s most powerful women politician and a former business magnate in a primary on Sunday, where the winner is certain to emerge as front-runner for the presidency.

The results of the conservative Grand National Party primary will be known on Monday. The election for the president of the world’s 12th largest economy is on Dec. 19.

Polls indicate Lee Myung-bak, a former top executive at the Hyundai Group who was later Seoul’s mayor, is the favorite. Voting in Seoul, Lee said he was confident of being on the ballot in the December main race.

“I hope to be having a good dream on Dec. 19,” he said.

But Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the iron ruler who pushed South Korea on the road to economic prowess in the 1960s and 70s, has almost closed the gap.

She expressed concern about voting irregularity, after news reports said a party member in the southern port city of Busan was caught photographing her ballot.

In a sign of the ferocity of the rivalry between the two, officials from both campaigns said they would be up through Sunday night to guard the ballot boxes from cheating. Counting does not start until Monday afternoon.

About two out of three voters would pick either Lee or Park to be president, recent polls said, while the top left-leaning candidate is supported by only about one in every 20 voters.

South Koreans want their next president to take a business-friendly approach to the economy and a harder line toward North Korea, surveys indicate.

They have also grown weary of left-of center President Roh Moo-hyun, who is perceived as failing to stabilize an uncertain labor situation or cool down an overheated real estate market.

Just ahead of the primary, prosecutors launched a probe into a possible shady land deal by Lee some 12 years ago. Lee denies any wrongdoing and many in his camp accuse Roh of using its influence to damage Lee’s chances of election.