SEOUL — Lee Myung-bak, a former business executive and ex-mayor of Seoul, was nominated by South Korea's conservative opposition party yesterday as its presidential candidate.
The Grand National Party, which comfortably leads President Roh Moo-hyun's supporters in polls ahead of December's election, held its presidential primary at Seoul's Olympic Stadium.
In an event televised live, he beat rival Park Geun-hye by 81,084 votes to 78,632, just 1.5 percentage points. Miss Park was more popular with the party, but Mr. Lee won because of the support of individual voters.
"We will build a new Korea," Mr. Lee he told ecstatic supporters. "I accept this as the people's demand to revive the economy."
Miss Park, a daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, accepted defeat gracefully, saying she would work to help the GNP take power.
Her statement ended months of vicious infighting. Dubbed a "beautiful defeat," her move was unusual in South Korea, where vanquished politicians frequently defect or form their own parties.
Mr. Lee has led in opinion polls for months. The 65-year-old is seen as a self-made man who, despite not being a member of the conglomerate's founding family, successfully headed the massive Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co.
As chief executive officer, he was known as "the Bulldozer" — as much for his take-no-prisoners leadership style as for his ability to get projects completed.
He served as Seoul mayor from 2002 to 2006, during which time he became the leading voice against President Roh Moo-hyun's flagship policy to relocate the nation's administrative capital from overcrowded Seoul to the provinces.
The failure of that policy was a huge boost to Mr. Lee and a major blow to Mr. Roh.
Mr. Roh is constitutionally barred from seeking a second presidential term.
As mayor, Mr. Lee also tore down a giant downtown overpass, uncovering and rejuvenating Seoul's ancient city center.
The $400 million project, which he accomplished in four years, is widely seen as one of Asia's most successful inner-city rejuvenations.
"In the 1997 and 2002 elections, people were concerned with ideology, but now they are more concerned with the economy: Youth unemployment is terrible and taxes are too high," said Sung Deuk-hahm, a political science professor at Korea University.
"The public believe that Lee Myung-bak has the ability to provide better economic conditions because he was a successful CEO of Hyundai."
He is widely seen as a business-friendly candidate and has raised the issue of lifting investment restrictions on conglomerates, a move that might allow them to own banks.
Shareholder rights groups are horrified, seeing this as a moral hazard.
Mr. Lee is expected to be more pro-American than Mr. Roh or his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, but questions remain over his apparent lack of international political or diplomatic expertise.
His policies on North Korea are not clear, though he has pledged to accelerate economic cooperation if Pyongyang ends its nuclear program.
A campaign promise to build a mammoth canal from Seoul in the northwest to Pusan in the southeast has been criticized for recalling his glory days as Seoul's mayor rather being a viable project.
The left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper warned, "Tough road lies ahead for Lee Myung-bak."
Personal ethics — a make-or-break issue for Korean politicians — could be his downfall.
Reports that relatives earned up to $28 million in real estate speculation, a sensitive issue in egalitarian South Korea, hang over him.
"He is being portrayed as 'old development' and I think he may be more divisive than Park Geun-hye," said one Roh adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity.