October 26, 2011 4:29 am

Seoul vote offers hint of Korea’s future

An independent candidate has become mayor of Seoul in a rare protest vote against South Korea’s monolithic two-party system, offering a clear sign voters want Asia’s fourth-biggest economy to spend far more on welfare.

The result is a heavy blow to Lee Myung-bak, the conservative president, who has called on the electorate not to support leftwingers such as Park Won-soon, who wants South Korea to forge a welfare state along European lines. Mr Lee has warned that such social spending could lead the country into a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

With more than half of the votes counted after Wednesday’s vote, Mr Park, a civic rights lawyer, had won about 53 per cent of ballots. Na Kyung-won, a conservative parliamentarian, only garnered about 46 per cent and conceded defeat shortly before 11pm.

Seoul’s mayor represents almost a quarter of the population and the result will offer a sign of political sentiment ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

Mr Park had made welfare a focus of his campaign, vowing to be Seoul’s “first welfare mayor”, promising to create a far deeper, universal social safety net in a country where welfare spending is only about one-third of the levels in western Europe.

“Welfare is not about doing people a favour but about basic rights,” Mr Park said.

Ms Na also promised to improve Korea’s meagre welfare but only by extending schemes to the neediest.

“Decent welfare must be based on financial soundness,” she said.

The clash between Ms Na and Mr Park attracted attention partly because of the two more dominant personalities who were supporting them.

Ms Na was backed by Park Geun-hye, the current presidential favourite for the 2012 election and the daughter of the country’s former military dictator. Mr Park was backed by Ahn Chul-soo, a highly popular software entrepreneur who is scathingly critical of the system of export-based conglomerates that dominate the Korean economy.

Mr Ahn has expressed no desire to become president, but the Seoul vote is being seen as a personality contest between him and Ms Park. One recent poll suggests he might beat her if he decided to run as an independent.

Electioneering became highly personal in the mayoral election. Mr Park had to defend his academic credentials and his stance towards North Korea. Ms Na had to defend how much she spends on facial care and whether she has used her handicapped daughter excessively to win campaign sympathy.

• South Korea signed an agreement with China on Wednesday to double the value of its bilateral currency swap pact after securing a similar deal with Japan last week, in a move to beef up its forex defences in the wake of global uncertainties.

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