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'Bulldozer' Lee Steams Closer to Presidency
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South Korea's main opposition party picked Lee Myung-bak yesterday to be its presidential nominee, making the former business magnate and Seoul mayor the clear favorite for the country's top post.


Lee, 65, beat Park Geun-hye, 55, a former military ruler's daughter hoping to become the country's first woman president at the December election. The winning margin was about 1.5 percentage points, the party said.


"We will take back the government," Lee told a boisterous crowd of some 15,000 at the Grand National Party's (GNP) convention.


The conservatives, who promise lower taxes and pro-business policies, have seen their support grow as that of left-leaning outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun has faded.


"Lee's strengths are his accomplishments in the economic sector and that he is a self-made man," said Yang Seung-ham, professor of political science at Yonsei University.


Lee, with an overall support rate of about 40 percent, is well ahead of the leading contenders for the election from a splintered left, whose top presidential candidates have at best mustered 5 percent support.


Nicknamed "the bulldozer" for his relish for pushing through public works projects, Lee has promised to roll back business-stifling regulations, rein in disruptive labor unions and open the country more to foreign investors.


Kim Il-young, a political science professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said the top issue for voters was the economy.


Kim said Lee is the candidate of big business, adding that even though the high-flying executive at the center of the country's economic transformation won the primary, "He has a lot to worry about".


Lee has recently been targeted by prosecutors - and GNP opponents - over suspect land deals more than a decade ago, allegations that threaten to tarnish his reputation.


GNP leaders are nervous that the ferocity of the nomination campaign could cost them votes and their commanding lead in the race to take over the presidential Blue House.


Lee was born to a poor family and as a boy earned money by selling seaweed and rice rolls through chain link fences at army bases. He worked as a garbage collector at a market to help pay his way through the prestigious Korea University.


Later, Lee landed a job at Hyundai Engineering & Construction, then a minor firm but which went on to become a pillar of the Republic of Korea's economic boom, and became its chief executive at 36. He entered politics in his 50s and won a seat in the National Assembly.


During his term as Seoul mayor that started in 2002, his most celebrated project was tearing down an elevated highway he helped build at Hyundai and restoring a stream buried beneath it that runs through the center of Seoul.


Lee called for unity in his acceptance speech. "I call upon Park Geun-hye to play the central role in taking back government and I believe she will accept it."


(China Daily August 21, 2007)

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