SEOUL, South Korea - Huge crowds turned out Wednesday to vote in a tight presidential race pitting the son of North Korean refugees against the conservative daughter of a late dictator who both favour greater engagement with rival North Korea.
Despite bitter cold, turnout was higher than past elections, which political analysts said might provide a slight boost to liberal Moon Jae-in over conservative Park Geun-hye in their contest to lead Asia's fourth-largest economy at a time of high tension with rival North Korea.
South Koreans stood in long lines, wrapped in mufflers and parkas. A big turnout could mean large numbers of young people — more likely aligned with Moon — are going to the polls, analysts said. Park's conservative base is comprised mainly of older voters who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her dictator father, Park Chung-hee.
Seoul's election watchdog said turnout was about 45 per cent as of early afternoon, 9 percentage points higher than five years ago, when current conservative President Lee Myung-bak won a landslide victory, and 3 percentage points higher than a decade ago when Moon's protege and former boss, liberal Roh Moo-hyun, won.
Wednesday is a national holiday in South Korea. Polls opened at 6 a.m. and were to close at 6 p.m. local time, after which television broadcasters planned to announce results from exit polls predicting a winner.
For all their differences, Moon, who was Roh's former chief of staff, and Park, who belongs to Lee's party, hold remarkably similar views on the need to engage with Pyongyang and other issues.
One big reason: Many voters are dissatisfied with current President Lee, including his hard-line stance on the country's authoritarian rival to the north. Park has had to tack to the centre in her bid to become South Korea's first woman president.
Many voters blame inter-Korean tension for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch by Pyongyang last week that outsiders call a cover for a banned long-range missile test. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
Earlier polls showed Park and Moon in a dead heat.
"Everything's now at heaven's disposal," Moon told reporters at a polling station in the southeastern port city of Busan. "I have put forward every bit of my energy."
Park, a five-term lawmaker, voted in Seoul and said she would wait for the "people's choice with a humble mind," calling on voters to "open a new era" for their nation.
South Koreans express deepening worry about the economy and disgust over the alleged involvement of aides close to Lee in corruption scandals.
"I skipped breakfast to vote. I've been waiting to vote for five years. I think it's time to change the government," said 37-year-old Kim Young-jin, who voted for Moon at a polling station inside an apartment complex.
At one polling station in Seoul, electric stoves were set up near a long line of young and old voters, some of whom blew on their freezing hands to try to keep warm.
"I believe in Park," Choi Yong-ja, a 59-year-old housekeeper, said as she left a polling station at a Seoul school. "She has abundant political experience."
The effort to create distance with incumbent Lee has been more difficult for Park, whose popularity rests on a staunchly conservative, anti-North Korea base.
Both candidates propose pulling back from Lee's insistence that engagement with North Korea be linked to so-far-nonexistent nuclear disarmament progress by Pyongyang. Park, however, insists on more conditions than Moon.
"I wish for at least a path to freely travel to North Korea and communicate" with friends and family, said a 40-year-old North Korean defector who would identify herself only by her surname, No. North Korean defectors are screened and given South Korean citizenship upon arrival.
Moon was a close friend and aide of late President Roh, who championed the so-called "sunshine policy" of no-strings-attached aid for Pyongyang.
Moon wants an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Park has also held out the possibility of such a meeting, but only if it's "an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern."
Whoever wins and moves into the presidential Blue House in February will set the initial tone for new North Korea policy not just in Seoul but in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. All those governments have recently undergone an election, a change of leadership or both.
A Moon election could lead to friction with Washington if new engagement with Pyongyang comes without any of the reciprocal nuclear disarmament progress that Washington demands from the North.
Moon and Park also agree on the need to fight widespread government corruption, strengthen social welfare, help small companies, close growing gaps between rich and poor, ease heavy household debt and rein in big corporations that have grown so powerful they threaten to eclipse national laws. They differ mainly in how far they want to go.
Moon wants to drastically expand welfare, while Park seeks more cautious improvement in the system, out of concern that expanding too much could hurt the economy, according to Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea.
Park is aiming to make history as the first female leader in South Korea — and modern Northeast Asia. But she also works under the shadow of her father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.
Park's father is both an asset and a soft spot. Many older South Koreans revere his strict economic policies and tough line against North Korea. But he's also loathed for his odious treatment of opponents, including claims of torture and snap executions.
A Park win would mean that South Korean voters believe she would evoke her father's strong charisma as president and settle the country's economic and security woes, analyst Chung said.
Moon, on the other hand, was a young opponent of Park Chung-hee. Before working for Roh, whom Lee replaced in 2008, Moon was a human rights lawyer. He also spent time in jail for challenging Park's government.
Moon's parents lived in the North Korean port city of Hungnam before fleeing to South Korea aboard a U.S. military ship in daring evacuation operations in December 1950, six months after the Korean War broke out.
A Moon win would be a clear judgment against the Lee government, said Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul.
Economic worries may be the focus of many voters, but North Korea forced itself as an issue in the closing days of campaigning with its rocket launch last week, which put a satellite into orbit.
The launch won't be a major election influence, but it will consolidate conservative votes in favour of Park, said Hahm. He said the launch will remind South Korean voters that "the North Koreans are unpredictable and belligerent."
AP writers Foster Klug and Youkyung Lee contributed to this story.