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South Koreans head to the polls

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean voters head to the polls on Wednesday ready to end 10 years of rule by liberal presidents by picking a former businessman who promises to run the world’s 13th largest economy like a CEO.

Lee Myung-bak, the presidential candidate of the conservative main opposition Grand National Party, is surrounded by supporters during a campaign in Iksan, south of Seoul, December 17, 2007. REUTERS/Han Jae-Ho

If elected, conservative candidate Lee Myung-bak will be the first businessman leader since democratic elections began in 1987. Since then, voters have sent a former general, two dissidents who fought decades of dictatorship, and a human rights lawyer to the presidential Blue House.

One analyst joked that conservatives could put up a dog and still win because of the animosity toward left-leaning government of outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun, who is seen as having botched the economy and having allowed house prices to soar out of reach.

Lee, who became the CEO of Hyundai’s construction arm at 36, is a businessman with star power. He was popular mayor of Seoul and his life story was part a popular TV drama about the country’s economic heroes.

Analysts say the massive lead of the man nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his can-do style is less a reflection of any passionate support and more one of his image as someone with the experience and pragmatism to revitalise the economy.

Lee says he will be an “economy president”, cutting away regulations that he argues have long stifled business, making the country more attractive to foreign investors, and clamping down on disruptive unions whose rallies and labour stoppages have been a drag on growth.

He has pledged to bring 7 percent growth, which economists see as unlikely and which compares to an average of a little over 4 percent during Roh’s rule.

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Economists are urging Lee to carry out painful reforms to help South Korea transform from a manufacturing and export-based economy into a fully developed market with a mature service sector.

U.S. AND JAPAN

On the international front, Lee wants to draw Japan and the United States closer after Roh riled the allies through years of anti-Tokyo rhetoric and finger-wagging at Washington for being too tough on North Korea.

North Korea, used to a free-flow of aid under Roh, is likely to find a less amenable neighbour in Lee who has said he will review policy towards the communist state and link future help to progress Pyongyang makes in ending its nuclear weapons programme.

The candidates have tried to spice up rallies with bouncy dance routines and sing-alongs -- and in Lee’s case having volunteers spray a specially developed perfume called “Great Korea” at his campaign stops.

His main challenger, the left-leaning Chung Dong-young, has been unable to remove the stigma of having served in the Roh government. Populist pledges to cut fuel taxes and medical fees and less tangible ideas such as setting up a “happiness bank” have done little to win over voters.

Lee has been hounded by charges of corruption. At the weekend, rivals showed a video touted as new evidence linking him to a securities firm suspected of corruption. Prosecutors had cleared him of the allegations earlier this month.

Analysts said the banner headlines from the scandal were unlikely to seriously damage the chances of Lee, who turns 66 on the December 19 polling day, but could cloud his presidency and carry over to April parliamentary elections

“At this point most Korean voters have decided how they are going to vote. Only a small portion of the Korean electorate will change their minds because of the video,” said Korea University political science professor Lee Nae-young.

But he added: “Even after the election has been decided, the ruling party and other candidates will pressure him on moral deficiency and this will hurt his presidency if he is elected.”

Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and David Fox

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