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Tuesday, December 16, 1997 Published at 15:44 GMT

World: Analysis

South Korea's `Mr Clean' bids to win presidency

On Thursday the people of South Korea go to the polls to elect a new president. It is the third general election since democracy was introduced a decade ago, ending nearly three decades of military rule. Around 20 million voters are expected to cast their votes. Although there are eight candidates, only two - Lee Hoi Chang and the opposition leader Kim Dae Jung - have any real chance of winning. Most analysts believe the result will be very close. Larry Jagan reports from Seoul on Lee Hoi Chang, the nationalist candidate who hopes to become the next president of South Korea.

The massive political rallies which characterised previous presidential campaigns have been limited by government regulation to ensure candidates concentrate on policy issues instead of hyperbola.

The battle for this year's presidency has been largely waged through the press, media advertisements and television debates.

As there is little difference between the main two rivals on policy, much of the campaign has been concentrating on the image of the candidates.

Supporters of the nationalist candidate, Lee Hoi Chang, portray him as a clean cut politician with integrity.

The 62-year-old son of a public prosecutor rose through the South Korean public service to become a supreme court judge.

His supporters point out while on the bench he stood up to the country's military authorities on a number of occasions.

During his three-month stint as prime minister in 1993 he also showed he was prepared to challenge President Kim Young Sam on matters of principle.

He refused to serve as a prime minister without power and resigned.

His campaign insists his legal background will mean he will strengthen the rule of law and stamp out corruption in South Korean politics and society.

But Mr Lee's image of integrity has been badly tainted by allegations that his two sons avoided compulsory military service by deliberately losing weight before the army medical examination.

While countering this scandal, he has also been at pains to address his image of being stern and aloof.

He has dyed his hair black, changed his glasses and served as a waiter in several restaurants during the campaign in an attempt to project a warmer image.

Ever since Mr Lee won the ruling New Korea party's presidential nomination in July, he has been trying to distance himself from the current president Kim Young Sam.

For months he trailed in the polls.

But the recent alliance with another presidential candidate and former Seoul mayor, Cho Soon, and the merger of their parties to form the Grand National party, has revived his campaign.

Mr Cho, an economist, former governor of the central bank and deputy premier for economic affairs, is expected to take charge of the battered Korean economy if Mr Lee wins on Thursday.

He is a staunch advocate of the free-market with a global vision and has the support of most of South Korea's business community.

As the poster on the wall in Bill Clinton's election campaign war-room said in 1992 "It's the economy, stupid !" and most analysts believe Mr Lee's chances of winning are dependent on his ability to convince the electorate his team is the best equipped to rejuvenate the South Korean economy.

While the business community may believe this, many voters are not yet convinced Mr Lee will be able to reform both the economy and South Korean society.

The opposition has seized every possible opportunity to remind the electorate that the very same people who are blamed for the country's current economic problems are leading members of Mr Lee's Grand National party.

It remains to be seen whether the electorate believes Mr Lee represents the new breed of politician he claims to be.

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