South Korea's liberals in crisis ahead of election

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SEOUL, Oct 9 (Reuters) South Korea's ruling liberal party is in disarray two months before the country's presidential vote, with its front-runner under investigation for violating election laws and some challengers boycotting campaign events in protest.

The left-leaning camp can hardly afford the turmoil.

Although it won the last two presidential races, its top candidates are now 40 percentage points or more behind the conservative party's nominee in the run-up to December's election.

Today, two contenders ended a brief campaign boycott in protest of suspected fraud in the liberal United New Democratic Party's (UNDP) primary. The party picks its nominee next Monday out of a list whose star draws are even struggling to get double-digit ratings in opinion polls.

''Primaries tend to become intense. However, that intensity isn't stirring up people's interest in the UNDP's primary. Instead, it's pushing them away,'' said Jeong Chan-soo, a specialist in domestic politics with MIN Consulting.

Polls show that for most voters the top election issue is making Asia's fourth-largest economy more competitive, for which they prefer former high-flying Hyundai executive Lee Myung-bak and his conservative Grand National Party. His entry into the presidential Blue House would end 10 years of rule by liberals.

''This election is basically a fight of Lee Myung-bak versus Lee Myung-bak. The outcome will depend on whether Lee makes a mistake or not, and how serious the mistake might be,'' said Jeong.

Lee wants to decrease regulations, make the country more open to foreign investors, crack down on troublesome unions and take a harder line on North Korea than the current government.

But he has been beset by rumours of shady financial deals and has been investigated by state prosecutors over possible improper property speculation. He denies any wrongdoing.

The front-runner for the liberals is Chung Dong-young, a TV newscaster-turned-politician who once served in the government of the current president, Roh Moo-hyun, as his point man for North Korea. He has won the first four of eight regional votes.

Last weekend, police tried to raid Chung's campaign office to investigate suspected identity theft that may have resulted in him receiving more voters for local primary elections than he was entitled to. Chung's camp denies the allegations.

Another liberal candidate, Sohn Hak-kyu -- who has led Chung in public opinion polls -- says the primary system is tilted towards his rival.

''The UNDP primaries have been tarnished by shameful events,'' Sohn told reporters today. ''The UNDP is in a crisis.'' Reuters ARB GC1240

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