South Korea elected its first female president Wednesday as national TV predicted a clear victory for New Frontier Party leader Park Geun-Hye, daughter of the country’s former dictator.
More than three hours after polling stations closed, the KBS, SBS and MBC national broadcasters all declared Park “certain” to secure an historic win over her liberal rival Moon Jae-In.
With more than 40% of the nationwide vote counted, Park was leading with 52.5% over Moon’s 47.1%, but there was no formal concession or claim of victory from either side.
Park will face a raft of challenges on entering the presidential Blue House in February, including a belligerent North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.
A large crowd of supporters had gathered outside Park’s Seoul residence, cheering and waving the national flag.
Despite freezing temperatures that hovered around -10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit), the election was marked by a high turnout of around 75%, compared to 63% in the 2007 presidential poll.
Park’s victory not only makes her the first female president of a still male-dominated nation, but also the first to be related to a former leader.
Her father Park Chung-Hee remains one of modern Korea’s most polarising figures—admired for dragging the country out of poverty and reviled for his ruthless suppression of dissent during 18 years of military rule.
He was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979. Park’s mother had been killed five years earlier by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.
Moon, the son of North Korean refugees and a one-time chief of staff to the late left-wing president Roh Moo-Hyun, is a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against the Park Chung-Hee regime.
After locking in the support of their respective conservative and liberal bases, the two candidates had put much campaign effort into wooing crucial centrist voters, resulting in significant policy overlap.
Both talked of “economic democratisation”—a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities caused by rapid economic growth—and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.
Moon, 59, was more aggressive than Park in his proposals for reining in the power of the giant family-run conglomerates, or “chaebol”, that dominate the economy.
While both candidates had signalled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang, Park’s approach was far more cautious than Moon’s promise to resume aid without preconditions and seek an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Although North Korea was not a major campaign issue, its long-range rocket launch last week—seen by critics as a disguised ballistic missile test—was a reminder of the unpredictable threat from across the border.
The never-married Park had promised a strong, parental style of leadership that would steer the country through the challenges of global economic troubles.
“Like a mother who dedicates her life to her family, I will become the president who takes care of the lives of each one of you,” she said in her last televised news conference on Tuesday.
A female president is a big change for a country that the World Economic Forum recently ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality—one place below the United Arab Emirates and just above Kuwait.