DAVID GREENE, HOST:
South Koreans go to the polls tomorrow to elect their next president. Their choice is between the daughter of a former military dictator and a human rights lawyer once imprisoned under that dictator's regime. The thing is, the two candidates don't differ much on policy. It's been a quarter-century since South Korea officially went from dictatorship to democracy. And the candidates are largely focused on creating jobs and wooing middle-aged, middle-class voters. NPR's Anthony Kuhn previews the vote from Seoul.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Her rallies present a youthful façade of blaring pop music and dancing supporters, but Park Geun-hye's campaign involves managing some tricky legacies. In September, Park publicly apologized for her father's suppression of democracy, beginning with his 1961 military coup and ending with his assassination in 1979. Then again, some older Koreans remember Park fondly for his role in transforming their war-torn, impoverished country into the world's 11th biggest economy. Park's spokesperson, Cho Yoon-sun, explains the Park family legacy.
CHO YOON-SUN: She will take all those pains that her father's regime left, and she will give all those gifts and all those contributions to the people that were made by her father.
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KUHN: Cho points out Park's record as a five-term lawmaker and leader of the New Frontier Party. The party changed its name this year to distance itself from the unpopular legacy of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, and steer it towards the political center. Park has promised a raft of benefits for women, in order to get them into the workforce and keep them there. She's no feminist, nor has she ever married or had children. Seoul National University law Professor Eom Ho Keon, who is attending a Park rally, says this gives her a certain advantage.
EOM HO KEON: (Through translator) In past, there have been a lot of family corruption scandals, with leaders trying to amass fortunes to pass on to their descendants. Ms. Park has no financial ambitions and no offspring to give her money to. She only wants to work for the people.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: In the opposing corner is liberal standard-bearer Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer. At a recent campaign rally, Moon assailed the ruling party as an extension of the chaebol, the family-owned conglomerates, which include Hyundai and Samsung, and that critics say have reaped most of the spoils of Korea's economic growth.
MOON JAE-IN: (Through translator) Is this a government that prioritizes conglomerates and corporate profits, or a government of the people? Is this a government that puts its own power first, or puts people first?
KUHN: Seoul National University political scientist Kang Won-taek says that this election is the first in 25 years in which there are only two major contenders to choose from: Park on the right, and Moon on the left.
KANG WON-TAEK: This is not only a competition between two candidates, but also, it's a showdown between two ideological blocks. So, ideological tendencies matter more.
KUHN: Policies seem to matter less, Kang says, because the two candidates' prescriptions are so similar. Both advocate greater welfare spending, which low, compared to other developed economies. Both say they will pursue policies of engagement with North Korea, avoiding all-out confrontation or appeasement. Kang says the lack of third party and independent candidates is frustrating for voters who want an alternative.
WON-TAEK: So that means it's a kind of political and electoral cartel between the two major parties. So that's why many people are sick and tired of these current political and party systems.
KUHN: Last -minute polls showed Park Geun-hye with a slim lead over Moon Jae-in, and voter turnout is expected to be as high as 85 percent. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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