The race is close: Most polls show Park with a lead of three or four percentage points. Ten percent of voters remain undecided, and Moon could get a slight bump from the endorsement last Thursday of independent Ahn Cheol-soo, a software entrepreneur who reluctantly dropped out of the race last month to avoid splitting the liberal vote.
Voters’ preferences for the top two candidates break by age. Moon, from the Democratic United Party (DUP), leads significantly among voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s, according to a recent poll from the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. But for those 50 and older, the sentiment flips to Park, whose father, Park Chung-hee, took control of the country 51 years ago. In other words, Park has the support of those who remember her father’s 18-year reign but lacks it from those who don’t.
Park Chung-hee remains one of South Korea’s most divisive figures, somebody whose legacy is still being debated. But older Koreans tend to be sentimental for his reign, remembering it as a time of economic boom and national optimism.
South Koreans widely agree that Park Chung-hee was an autocrat, but conservatives tend to think of him as a relatively benevolent one — and less corrupt than some of his predecessors. He also pulled the strings for South Korea’s remarkable economic takeoff by channeling bank loans to big businesses and forcing them to export, a means to become internationally competitive.
But Park Chung-hee is controversial because he drew up a constitution allowing himself unlimited six-year terms, won elections with vote-rigging and oversaw violent crackdowns on dissenters, including university students. He was assassinated by an aide in 1979. An earlier North Korea-led assassination attempt, in 1974, missed Park but killed his wife, opening the door for a mourning Park Geun-hye, then 22, to become
de facto first lady.
Park Geun-hye’s aides say they are sensitive about her connection to her father. They sent a memo to the news media this year asking that articles not refer to Park Chung-hee as a “dictator.” On the campaign trail, Park has apologized for some of her father’s actions, including his coup and crackdowns on student protesters.
“These things delayed the political development of the Republic of Korea,” Park Geun-hye said in a heavily publicized remark.