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park geun hye

Millions of South Koreans have cast ballots in a presidential election seen as too close to call.

Park Geun-hye of the governing Saenuri party is looking to make history as South Korea’s first female president.

But she faces a tough challenge from Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, who has been steadily eroding her lead in the polls.

Whoever wins will replace President Lee Myung-bak, who is stepping down, as the law requires, after his five-year term.

Economic issues including welfare provision and job creation have dominated campaigning.

Polls opened at 06:00 and closed 12 hours later. Three television stations were expected to release joint exit polls shortly after voting closed, with formal results expected early on Thursday.

Turn-out at 16:00 – with two hours of polling to go – was 65.2%, already past the final turn-out figure of 63% in the 2007 election, Yonhap news agency said.

A national holiday has been declared so people can cast their ballots.

“Though it’s cold today, I hope you will take part in the voting and open up a new era that every one of you has yearned for,” Park Geun-hye said after voting in Seoul.

Park Geun-hye of the governing Saenuri party is looking to make history as South Korea's first female president

Park Geun-hye of the governing Saenuri party is looking to make history as South Korea’s first female president

Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former military ruler General Park Chung-hee, a polarizing figure credited with transforming South Korea into an economic success story during his 1961-1979 rule, but accused of ruthlessly crushing dissent.

Both Park Geun-hye’s parents were assassinated – her mother in 1974 by a pro-North Korea gunman and her father in 1979 by his own spy chief.

Park Geun-hye, 60, who in September apologized for human rights abuses during her father’s era, said on Tuesday she would be “a president of the people’s livelihoods, who thinks only about the people”.

“I will restore the broken middle class and open an era in which the middle class make up 70% of the population,” she said in a news conference at her party’s headquarters in Seoul.

Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, was once jailed for protesting against General Park’s regime.

He was a chief of staff to Lee Myung-bak’s predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, who killed himself in 2009 while under investigation for corruption.

In his news conference, Moon Jae-in pointed to the current corruption and incompetency allegations surrounding Park Geun-hye’s own party.

“This overall crisis… will not be resolved by replacing the representative player. We must change the entire team,” the 59-year-old said.

Casting his ballot on Wednesday, he appealed for voters to turn out.

“If you have been unsatisfied over the last five years, please change the world with your votes,” he said.

For all their differences, the two candidates have put forward remarkably similar policies.

They have both promised to boost social welfare spending, close the gap between the rich and poor and rein in the country’s family-run giant conglomerates, known as chaebol.

On the issue of North Korea, which has not featured heavily in the campaign despite its recent rocket launch, both candidates have promised more engagement with Pyongyang – though, in Park Geun-hye’s case, more cautiously than her rival.

The electorate appears to be more engaged than usual, with one recent poll suggested more than 80% of voters are planning to cast their ballots

South Korea uses a first-past-the-post system, and so the candidate with the most votes will become president.

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Presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s former leader Park Chung-hee, has apologized for human rights violations committed during her father’s rule.

Park Geun-hye is the ruling party candidate for presidential elections in December.

Park Chung-hee seized power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled until he was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979.

He boosted the economy but was accused of ruthlessly crushing dissent, delaying democratic development.

Park Geun-hye is the ruling party candidate for the South Korean presidential elections in December

Park Geun-hye is the ruling party candidate for the South Korean presidential elections in December

Park Geun-hye, 60, secured the ruling party nomination for the polls last month, marking the first time a woman has been chosen as a presidential candidate by one of South Korea’s main political parties.

But she has been battling her father’s legacy since the very beginning of her presidential campaign.

Park Chung-hee is credited with kick-starting South Korea’s economic success, but many younger and liberal voters see his human rights record as a blot on the country’s history.

Addressing a news conference, Park Geun-hye said her father had prioritized economic growth and national security issues.

“Behind the stellar growth were sacrifices by workers who suffered under a repressive labor environment,” she said.

“Behind the efforts for national security to protect [ourselves] from North Korea were human rights abuses committed by state power.”

Offering sincere apologies, she said: “I believe that it is an unchanging value of democracy that ends cannot justify the means in politics.”

Park Geun-hye remains ahead in opinion polls for the 19 December election.

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