SEOUL, DEC. 12 -- Ruling party presidential candidate Roh Tae Woo, making a last-ditch effort to establish a lead over his three rivals, today pledged a general amnesty for prisoners and an end to authoritarian government if he is elected on Wednesday.
Roh's promise of a "new era of democratic reconciliation" came on the final weekend of a campaign that has grown increasingly bitter and divisive. All three of Roh's rivals, holding rallies on the eighth anniversary of the military coup that brought Roh and President Chun Doo Hwan to power, said Roh should withdraw from the race before the vote.
The election, the first free contest in 16 years, would set the stage for the first peaceful transition of power in South Korea's history when Chun resigns in February. But sporadic violence and the increasing likelihood that no candidate will win a clear majority has soured the mood here.
"The campaign, which should be a kind of national festival, has become a chilling battlefield," Roh said today. "The nation is skidding deeper and deeper into schism and confrontation."
Roh, a former general and military academy classmate of the current president, held a huge rally today at Seoul's Yoido Plaza, pulling off the event without major violence, although protesters threw a few tear gas grenades that sent gas wafting across the speaker's platform.
Opposition candidates Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam had each attracted close to one million people to Yoido in rallies during the past two weeks, and Roh came close to matching them today.
Opposition candidate Kim Dae Jung, who was jailed and sentenced to death after the coup eight years ago, today charged that Roh was partially responsible for the suppression of protests in the provincial capital of Kwangju in 1980. Kim said that more than 1,000 people died when Chun and Roh sent soldiers into the city to quell the protests against martial law.
The government says that not more than 200 people were killed. A ruling party spokesman accused Kim of making false charges.
The government also denied today that a 22-year-old soldier was beaten to death by superior officers for casting his absentee ballot for Kim Dae Jung, as Kim charged yesterday. The government acknowledged that the soldier died while being "disciplined," saying he was pushed by a sergeant and hit his head against the sharp edge of a wall locker, but said the discipline was unrelated to the election.
The opposition has charged that the ruling party pressured the nation's 600,000 troops to vote for Roh, which could be significant in a close four-way election with 25 million voters. The government denies the allegations.
"It was an unfortunate incident," a spokesman said of the soldier's death. "It had nothing to do with the election."
Opposition candidate Kim Young Sam meanwhile marked the eighth anniversary of the coup by calling Chun and Roh "politicized soldiers . . . obsessed with desire to take power." He said Roh should withdraw "if he has any conscience or repentance about the military dictatorship."
And former premier Kim Jong Pil, generally believed to be running fourth in the race, said Roh should resign because the government has been fraudulently manipulating the election.
The crowd at Roh's rally today seemed far less enthusiastic than those at the rallies held by the two Kims. Many of those gathered were ordered to come by their government or company employers, according to several people in the crowd. In many cases, attendance was taken.
In addition, more than 10,000 riot police and plainclothesmen ringed the plaza and controlled the crowd. A Roh rally in Kim Dae Jung's stronghold, in southwest Korea, had to be canceled this week after thousands of rock-throwing protesters gathered.
Roh repeated his contention that only he could guarantee stability and continued economic growth for this rapidly developing nation. But in his pledge of "democratic reconciliation," he sounded more like an opposition candidate, vowing to investigate "all major past scandals" and reorient South Korea's intelligence agencies toward external threats.
Roh also promised to give the nation a chance to make an "interim appraisal" of his performance next fall, less than one year into his five-year term if elected. He did not specify whether he would hold a referendum or seek the "appraisal" in some other way.
Kim Young Sam's spokesman called Roh's declaration "a fraudulent scenario of the ruling party to turn the tide in its favor." Kim Dae Jung's spokesman called it "false pledges to cheat the people."
But Roh said he is trying "to build a society in which everybody is happy and friendly, a nation in which everybody is well off and a country throughout which ever firmer stability prevails."