[credit provider=”AP Photo/Lee Jin-man”]
Park Geun-hye, whose father ruled South Korea with an iron fist for 18 years, is on course to become the country’s first female president, after exit polls and TV networks predicted she would narrowly beat her opponent in one of the country’s closest and most divisive elections for years.For a while after the polls closed on Tuesday evening, the race appeared to be too close to call, with Park’s lead over Moon Jae-in, a liberal former human rights lawyer, put at just over one percentage point.
But with a third of the votes counted, South Korea’s three biggest TV networks were predicting a definite, if slim, victory for Park, who appears to have overcome resentment towards her father’s legacy and accusations that she is too close to the powerful chaebol conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy.
Citing party officials, the Yonhap news agency said Park was preparing to make a victory speech in central Seoul on Wednesday evening, while hundreds of supporters were reportedly gathering outside her house.
With about 64% of the votes counted, Park has a 51.7% share while Moon has 47.8% according to the state-run national election commission.
The election has captivated South Koreans, who turned out to vote in huge numbers despite subzero temperatures. The election commission put turnout at 75.8%, the highest in 15 years.
Moon, 59, who appeals more to younger voters, had said he needed a turnout of 77% to stand a chance of making it to the presidential Blue House.
Voters were divided over Park’s suitability to lead the country out of its mounting economic problems, and to improve relations with North Korea. The legacy of her father, the country’s longest serving dictator, continues to divide people, 33 years after his death.
Older, conservative Koreans credit her father, Park Chung-hee, with South Korea’s transformation into an economic powerhouse out of the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean war. Others, though, have never forgotten his ruthless crackdowns against opponents, and blame him for delaying the arrival of democracy.
Moon was among the democracy activists imprisoned during Park’s rule, which ended in 1979, when he was assassinated by his intelligence chief.
Five years earlier, Park Geun-hye, then 22, had been forced into the role of first lady after her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was killed by a North Korean assassin’s bullet intended for her husband.
Park, who has never married, will inherit a formidable array of economic problems if she takes office on 25 February. Inequality and youth unemployment have increased under the current president, Lee Myung-bak, who by law cannot seek a second term, and the economy is forecast to grow this year at its slowest pace since 2009.
North Korea was not a major issue in the campaign until last week, when it successfully launched a rocket and sent a satellite into orbit.
Both candidates said they would seek greater engagement with the north, although Park urged the regime to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk