SEOUL, South Korea — Lee Myung-bak, a conservative politician famous for his success in business but dogged by questions about his character, swept to a huge victory on Wednesday in a presidential election dominated by economic concerns.
Voters cast aside widespread misgivings about Mr. Lee’s ethics, betting that he would fulfill his pledge to whip the economy to the heady levels of the 1990s, when growth averaged around 7 percent a year. But Mr. Lee’s landslide was tempered by a new investigation directed at him; an indictment would raise questions about the legitimacy of his administration.
The results on Wednesday reflected voters’ deep dissatisfaction with the liberal administration of President Roh Moo-hyun, who is limited to a single five-year term by the Constitution, and his handling of the economy. By turning to Mr. Lee, the candidate of the opposition conservative Grand National Party, South Koreans put bread-and-butter issues ahead of the larger themes of social equality, political change and reconciliation with North Korea that had influenced their votes in the past decade.
This time, relations with North Korea or the United States barely registered among voters. But political analysts said Mr. Lee, a pro-business, pragmatic politician not known for taking strong ideological positions, would improve Seoul’s strained relations with Washington. As for North Korea, Mr. Lee has said that he will continue the policy of engaging it economically but that he will demand more concessions.
With 48.7 percent of the total votes, Mr. Lee, who had been leading in opinion polls for months, fell slightly short of his goal of garnering more than half of all votes cast, something no one has accomplished since South Korea began holding democratic elections in 1987. But in returning the Grand National Party to power after 10 years of liberal rule, he won by the largest margin since 1987, with his nearest rival, Chung Dong-young, a candidate allied with Mr. Roh, coming in with only 26.1 percent.
Still, political analysts and voters interviewed indicated that the numbers did not amount to a strong endorsement of Mr. Lee but reflected the absence of other viable contenders. The campaign attracted little attention in a country where presidential elections have been accompanied by large street rallies. The turnout, 62.9 percent, was a record low.
“I voted for Lee Myung-bak even though I think he’s a little corrupt,” said Kim Cho-rong, 21, a college student studying interior design. “I figured someone who is a little guilty but competent was better for our society than someone who is innocent but incompetent.”
In recent years, a general economic malaise gripped South Koreans as economic growth slowed to the level of 3 to 5 percent, small and medium-size companies struggled to stay afloat and youth unemployment rose. Mr. Roh appeared out of touch, especially after his efforts to squelch real estate speculation at one point made housing even more unaffordable. Even supporters who credited him with improving ties with North Korea and creating more openness in government turned against him and his party.
“I’ve always voted for liberals, but this time the economy became such a huge issue,” said Kim Sung-ki, 54, a businessman in Seoul. “So I decided to take a fresh look.”
Mr. Lee, who turned 66 on Wednesday, is strongly identified with South Korea’s high-growth years because he became, at the age of 36, the chief executive of Hyundai Construction and then ran several subsidiaries at Hyundai, a major conglomerate. From 2002 to 2006, he served as mayor of Seoul and became a top presidential contender after completing the restoration of a stream in downtown Seoul.
But he has long been bedeviled by questions about his ethics. He has admitted to falsely identifying his children as employees to evade taxes, and to registering them at a separate address to send them to better schools. This month, prosecutors cleared him of charges of involvement in a stock manipulation case at a company called BBK, with which he denies any connection.
But on Monday, a day after a video emerged in which Mr. Lee appeared to claim that he had founded the company, the National Assembly, now controlled by liberal lawmakers, voted to appoint a special counsel to reopen the case. If he is indicted before the transfer of power on Feb. 25, it would create a huge political burden for his administration. As president, he would enjoy immunity from any criminal prosecution unless accused of treason.
“His ethical problems could undermine his status as president-elect and eventually affect his ability to govern as president,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political scientist at Korea University. “On the other hand, he was able to get a big victory and a popular mandate, so that could help him overcome his problems.”
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