THE young democracy in South Korea has taken many twists since its debut in 1987. An election tomorrow for the 299-seat parliament will add the first major turn.
This election, with its rough-and-tumble campaign, will serve as more than just a test of democracy in a country once ruled by dictators. Despite widespread misuse of money and other flaws in the campaigning, a fair vote by up to 28.9 million of the 43.9 million South Korean population will also help bolster the government's negotiating stance against the communist north.
"We think North Korea has waited to see how this election turns out before it moves on key issues, such as its nuclear weapons program," a South Korean diplomat says.
In addition, tomorrow's poll will provide a clue as to which politician might replace the lame-duck president, Roh Tae Woo, in elections due this December. Under the new Constitution, the president is limited to one five-year term.
President Roh's ruling party faces a critical test over its actions in shaping the emerging democracy, Roh's progress in talks with North Korea, and in a mixed record on the economy.
One largely unnoticed aspect is the lack of any serious threat from the military for the first time. Roh, a former officer himself, has maneuvered the brass back into the barracks.
"This election is the most important one in Korean history, selecting either stability or disorder," Kim Young Sam, executive chairman of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), told a campaign crowd, according to the national news agency, Yonhap.
The DLP was formed in 1990 out of Roh's former ruling party and two of the three opposition parties, one of them led by Mr. Kim. Factional disputes have hurt the merger at times, and this election will help determine whether Kim has the popular support to be chosen the party's presidential candidate this May or June.
In January, Roh said he would not name his preferred successor in the DLP, but regarded Kim, his onetime political foe, as "the center of the party."
Beyond internal strife, the DLP has been hit by a political curve-ball in this election. An elderly industrial magnate, Chung Ju Yung, set up an alternative conservative party that could reduce the size of the DLP's expected victory and set him up as a swing broker in parliament.
The governing party now controls 215 of the parliament's 299 seats, while the main opposition Democratic Party has 76 seats. The rest are held by independents. The election is for 237 seats, with 62 more nonconstituency seats to be apportioned to parties based on how well they do.
Many analysts expect Chung's new Unification National Party to garner about 20 seats, enough to worry the DLP into attacking Mr. Chung. The DLP had hoped for 60 percent of the seats, but now some pundits predict 55 percent.
Chung, as the founder and former chairman of the giant conglomerate Hyundai, has tapped his vast wealth and reputation to quickly form the party after the government hit him with a big tax bill last year. He has found a vulnerable spot in the DLP's strength by highlighting alleged corruption and by pointing to a 10 percent inflation rate and a trade deficit reaching an all-time high of $9.6 billion in 1991.
"The national economy is unstable. Social discontent is mounting. All this [has] combined to throw the nation into a total crisis," he told foreign journalists.
But Chung has crossed over a boundary by mixing business and politics, and the other leading business conglomerates put out a call for Hyundai to stay clear of Chung's campaign. At least 120 employees have quit the firm to help Chung.
The official election watchdog agency has warned that politicians are offering gifts and free trips to win votes, and at least 17 people have been arrested for violating campaign laws.
President Roh has told his party that he wanted to hold "the fairest and cleanest parliamentary elections in history." As in the past, a strong regional loyalty is likely to influence which politicians the South Korean voters choose.