SEOUL, OCT. 27 -- South Korean voters, marking another political milestone on the road from military rule to democracy, today overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that requires direct presidential elections and protects human rights.
The constitution, the first in the country's history to be supported by both ruling and opposition parties, was approved by about 93 percent of the voters, based on a count of more than 90 percent of the ballots cast, election officials said. This is far more than the simple majority required for passage.
Election officials said about 78 percent of the 25.6 million people eligible had voted.
"I have a special feeling because this time we vote with pride and self respect," said Yim In Sook, 40, a housewife who voted in Seoul at her neighborhood grammar school. "This constitution stands for democracy. We are voting to get back our rights."
Her husband, Suh Young San, a businessman, also showed the enthusiasm and confidence that seem to have grabbed hold of many people here. "Our people and our country will be able to make a lot of economic, social and political progress by voting for this constitution," he said.
Another voter, Kim Jae Soo, 25, a graduate student, recalled the June protests that prompted President Chun Doo Hwan to bow to the public pressure for reforms. "This is what so many students had rallies about and fought for," Kim said. "I have no doubt that it will work out."
The voting occurred amid tight security. About 100,000 policemen were mobilized to prevent renewed campaign violence from marring it. While there were no reports of serious problems outside of Seoul, riot police in the center of the capital battled with hundreds of radical students and workers who were demanding stricter laws protecting union rights. The protesters threw rocks and molotov cocktails at the police, who responded with repeated volleys of tear gas.
The constitution takes effect on Feb. 25, the day that Chun is to hand over power to the winner of presidential elections slated for mid-December. Chun had previously opposed changing the country's charter, but after nationwide protests in June, he accepted a wide-ranging reform package that centered on the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of direct presidential elections.
Although the election will be the key political event in South Korea, today's referendum result is important because it underscores the depth of popular support for ending the decades of military-backed rule. This will make it more difficult for generals on the right or radical students on the left to obstruct the fragile political evolution before, or even after, the elections are held.
Among the many "firsts" in the constitution is its call for the Army to stay out of politics. "The military shall observe neutrality with respect to political affairs," it states.
In a bid to thwart authoritarian rule, it also pares executive powers by barring the president from dissolving the National Assembly and strictly limiting his ability to declare a state of emergency. The president also is limited to a single five-year term.
The four declared presidential candidates voted in their neighborhood precincts. Kim Dae Jung, the opposition leader whose voting rights were restored just a few months ago after a 16-year period in which he was barred from all political activity, was initially prevented from voting. He showed up at his precinct without the proper identification card, and local officials refused to let him cast a ballot.
Kim went home, found the card, returned to the precinct and voted.