A new and uncertain political era will begin in Seoul this morning when, as now seems guaranteed, Kim Dae Jung becomes the first opposition politician to be elected president of South Korea.
With two-thirds of the votes counted, Mr Kim held a small but consistent lead at the end of a election in which uninspiring campaigning was overshadowed by Korea's deepening economic crisis. By 2am, Mr Kim had won almost 40 per cent, compared to 38 per cent by his close rival, the ruling party candidate, Lee Hoi Chang, who trailed by 1 or 2 per cent throughout the count. The third of the leading candidates, Rhee In Je, a former member of the ruling party who split its support, had 19 per cent of the vote.
"Right now I can't feel this victory in my bones," Mr Kim told members of his party, the National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), early this morning. "The world is watching us and if we can't properly transfer power, it will affect the way the world looks at us. Even if I am elected, hardships confront us."
Opinion polls had for weeks predicted a close vote, but in previous elections, Korean voters have swung at the last minute towards the ruling party. This conservative tendency appears to have been cancelled out by popular anger over the sudden collapse of the economy.
Mr Kim is a political institution in South Korea, a former dissident and political prisoner, who escaped execution and assassination under South Korea's military dictators.
He had stood and lost in three previous presidential elections, and more than once announced his permanent retirement from politics.
In a country previously dominated by conservatives, Mr Kim is regarded as something of a radical. But, apart from the symbolic value of an opposition victory - in a country in which democracy is only 10 years old - serious doubts remain about his ability to rescue the country from the grave economic crisis into which it has sunk.
Last month, South Korea became the latest and biggest victim of the wave of currency devaluations which have swept East Asia since the summer. In the space of a few weeks, the stock market has plunged and the Korean won has lost half its value, although the decline slowed this week thanks to a $57bn bail out by the International Monetary Fund.
The rescue package is conditional on a set of harsh reforms which will almost certainly result in further bankruptcies and rising unemployment over the next year, and it has been denounced by trade unions, business associations and nationalist groups.
Last week, Mr Kim provoked a plunge in the markets when he said that he would renegotiate the terms of the deal if he was elected.
He later signed a statement with his fellow candidates giving the IMF his full support, but the suspicion lingers that the deal is less safe in his hands than it would have been in those of Mr Lee.Reuse content