SEOUL, South Korea – Former Hyundai CEO Lee Myung-bak claimed victory Wednesday in South Korea's presidential election, as voters overlooked fraud allegations in hopes he will revive the economy.
Lee's two main rivals both conceded defeat after returns and exit polls showed him winning nearly double the votes of his closest competitor.
"Today, the people gave me absolute support. I'm well aware of the people's wishes," said Lee, of the conservative Grand National Party. "I will serve the people in a very humble way. According to the people's wishes, I will save the nation's economy that faces a crisis."
The National Election Commission said Lee had 47 percent of the vote and liberal Chung Dong-young was a distant second at 27.5 percent, with 58 percent of the vote counted.
An exit poll sponsored by TV stations KBS and MBC showed Lee getting 50.3 percent of the vote. The poll of 70,000 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.
Lee, a former Seoul mayor who turned 66 on election day, has led the race for months. His victory ends a decade of liberal rule in the South, during which the country embarked on unprecedented reconciliation with rival North Korea that has led to restored trade and travel across the heavily armed frontier dividing the peninsula.
"I humbly accept the people's choice," Chung told reporters late Wednesday. "I hope (president)-elect Lee Myung-bak will do a good job for the country."
Candidate Lee Hoi-chang, who was trailing in third with 15.7 percent of the vote, congratulated Lee Myung-bak on his win.
"I hope he would uphold the people's yearning for a change in government and correct what the outgoing government has done wrong in the past," he told reporters.
Lee has pledged to take a more critical view of Seoul's engagement with North Korea and seek closer U.S. ties. Efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions stand at a critical juncture, with the communist country set to disclose all its programs for eventual dismantlement by a year-end deadline.
Just days before the vote, the parliament voted to authorize an independent counsel investigation into Lee in a stock manipulation case where prosecutors had already cleared him of wrongdoing. The counsel is to complete the probe before the Feb. 25 inauguration, and Lee has said he would step aside from the presidency if found at fault.
"I want to thank the people who have defended me from numerous negative campaigns," Lee said after voting in Seoul. "This time, we have to change the government without fail. To do so, all the people should take part in the voting."
Analysts say the independent counsel investigation will hound Lee after the election as he would be the country's first president-elect to undergo a criminal probe. By South Korean law, a president-elect can be prosecuted but receives immunity from most criminal lawsuits after inauguration.
Unlike previous elections dominated by issues like security policy with rival North Korea or relations with the United States, this year voters were focused on economic matters due to concern over sky-high real estate prices, soaring unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor.
Nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his can-do business acumen, Lee's support has been bolstered due to dissatisfaction over the five-year term of liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who was constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.
In 2002, Roh was elected after pledging not to "kowtow" to the U.S. while also continuing the rapprochement with the North fostered by his predecessor and fellow liberal Kim Dae-jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his "sunshine" policy of engagement with Pyongyang.
Lee has made the economy central to his campaign, pledging to raise annual growth to 7 percent, double the country's per capita income to $40,000 and lift South Korea to among the world's top seven economies -- known as his "747" pledge.
Lee first gained prominence as head of Hyundai's construction unit that symbolized South Korea's meteoric economic rise in the 1960-70s. As Seoul mayor from 2002-2006, he made his mark by opening up a long-paved-over stream to create a new landmark in the capital that also earned him environmental credibility.
Lee's march to the presidency hit a bump this week when a video was released by his liberal rivals showing him saying in 2000 that he founded a firm implicated in fraud. Although he had acknowledged the same in printed interviews, the video put the words directly into his mouth.
The case revolves around a Korean-American former business associate of Lee's who faces charges for stock manipulation, embezzlement and forgery after his extradition from the U.S., where he allegedly fled with millions of dollars.
Lee has said the taped comments were taken out of context and denied the allegations.