S Korea embraces people power embraces

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Cha Young might be called the Barbara Follett of South Korean politics. A former news-reader, he is one of the first members of a profession unknown in the country until recently: a political style consultant.

Last weekend, as the three leading candidates to be mayor of Seoul prepared for a televised debate, Mr Cha's candidate, Cho Soon, of the Democratic Party, was carefully briefed on the art of broadcasting. Mr Cha advised on body language, grooming, even a choice of tie. "We encouraged him to choose examples and tell anecdotes," said Mr Cha, "so the average viewer would understand."

The debate was intended to be open and adversarial, a fitting symbol of the new spirit of democracy represented by today's local elections, the first since a military coup in 1961. Thirty- one million Koreans are eligible to vote for 15 governorships and mayoral posts, and more than 4,000 council seats. But the television special was a failure. Decades of clandestine political manoeuvring and Confucian indirectness got the better of the candidates. They were so self-conscious and restrained that Korea Broadcast System's producers were at a loss. It was only by digging up campaign footage of bitchy quotes and editing them alongside one another that the programme was brought alive.

But the signs are that the elections will be decided not by soundbites and snappy dressing, but by a complex web of regional loyalties, party politicking and personal feuds. In plenty of ways the poll is truly local. Since he became its first democratically elected president in 1992, Kim Young Sam has consolidated what is one of Asia's most powerfully expanding economies. Huge conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai have propelled South Korea to global dominance of industries like memory chips; it is also the world's fifth-largest car maker.

But rapid expansion has had its price. With a mushrooming population of 11 million, Seoul suffers chronic traffic jams, air and water pollution. All have become key election issues: at a news conference in the capital, there was a sensation when Chung Won Shik, of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), owned up to boiling the city's tap water before drinking it. As elected leader of a quarter of the entire population, the mayor of Seoul will wield considerable power. Competing candidates already refer to the post as "the small president". Alongside these local concerns are broader political issues, rooted in South Korea's painful emergence from 31 years of military rule. The situation is all the more byzantine because each of the three principal players is called Kim.

First among Kims is President Kim of the Democratic Liberal Party. In 1992 he defeated Kim Dae Jung, a former friend turned bitter political rival who has emerged from retirement to campaign on behalf of the opposition Democratic Party (DP). Kim number three is Kim Jong Pil, another former ally of the President who quit the government in February to form the United Liberal Party (ULP).

While President Kim's DLP pooh-poohs the local elections, the other two parties are keenly promoting them as a vote of confidence in his rule. If the ULP, to right of the government, makes a strong showing, it may translate into gains in parliament, where the DLP has a 26-seat majority. The President's personal powers are strong, but losing his majority would truly reopen the Battle of the Kims.