SEOUL — Conservatives stormed back into power ending a decade of liberal government in South Korea yesterday, achieving an overwhelming victory in a presidential election.
Lee Myung-bak, the candidate of the right-wing Grand National Party, had plenty to celebrate. As well as his 66th birthday and his wedding anniversary — which both fell on voting day — he earned a victory of historic proportions.
With all ballots counted, Mr. Lee had 48.7 percent of the tally, compared with 26.2 percent for his nearest rival, liberal Chung Dong-young, according to the National Election Commission. It was the largest margin of victory in any of the five elections since 1987, when the nation won democratization after massive "people power" protests.
Two other candidates shared most of the remaining votes.
In his first press conference after securing the victory, the South Korean president-elect promised to take a tougher line with North Korea on human rights and other issues, even as Seoul continues to support international efforts to end the North's nuclear-weapons program.
"Previous [South Korean] governments have refrained from criticizing and tried to unilaterally appease the North Koreans," Mr. Lee said. "I can say that such a practice will change."
He added that "caring criticism will even make the North Korean society healthier."
The U.S. State Department issued a statement congratulating the president-elect, and South Korean stocks rose in early trading today in the wake of the big-margin run up by the pro-business Mr. Lee.
TV vans and giant LCD screens broadcast the election results in central Seoul, prompting cheers, dancing and fireworks from Lee supporters.
"This is tremendous, the first time in history" a president has approached 50 percent popular support, said Yim Sung-bin, a Lee adviser. He said the near-majority vote "indicates that Mr. Lee now has the power to implement his design and vision for the country."
That design is highly ambitious.
Mr. Lee and his pro-business Grand National Party promised their economically minded electorate they will more than double South Koreans' household incomes and raise the country's global economic ranking from its current 11th place to seventh.
His most extravagant proposal is to dig a canal the length of the mountainous nation, from Seoul in the northeast to the port of Busan, in the southwest. Critics have dubbed it pork-barrel politics of a bygone era; supporters insist it will upgrade logistics and revitalize moribund rural economies.
Mr. Lee, who rose from poverty to become chief executive officer of Hyundai Engineering and Construction and mayor of Seoul, also pledged to rejuvenate Seoul's historic alliance with Washington, and vowed that future economic aid to North Korea will be conditional on the North's verifiable denuclearization.
South Korea's last two administrations were criticized for their "carrots-but-no-sticks" approach to North Korea, which contributed to their sour relations with the Bush administration.
But Mr. Lee, who takes power Feb. 25, faces a potentially rocky transition period.
Prosecutors cleared him of involvement in a stock manipulation scam involving a bankrupt financial firm on Dec. 6, sparking fistfights in the National Assembly.
But he still faces a special investigation after new evidence — a videotape in which he purportedly admits having established the financial firm — was made public by the liberal United New Democratic Party (UNDP) on Sunday.
Once he takes office as president, Mr. Lee will be immune from criminal prosecution.
Mr. Chung, 54, the UNDP's candidate, is a former TV anchor, but he is closely associated with the unpopular Roh Moo-hyun administration, which is perceived to have mismanaged the economy.
Other candidates included independent Lee Hoi-chang, an archconservative with an anti-North Korean platform, and Moon Kuk-hyun, a widely respected former businessman with no ethical issues but little political experience. Mr. Moon took about 5 percent of the vote.