Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea's Cold War dictator, will become the country's first female president after her liberal rival Moon Jae-in conceded defeat Wednesday.
A victory for the 60-year-old Ms. Park marks a breakthrough for women in South Korea, which has the highest level of gender inequality in the developed world. It is also expected to mean a continuing atmosphere of confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, with the conservative Ms. Park expected to largely continue the tough line the outgoing President Lee Myung-bak adopted towards Pyongyang during his five-year term.
The country's main television network, KBS, declared Ms. Park elected as she held a steady half-million vote lead over liberal rival Moon Jae-in. Less than 30 per cent of the votes had been counted at the time KBS made the announcement.
Earlier, a joint exit poll that was broadcast by the three main television networks showed Ms. Park headed towards a narrow win with 50.1 per cent of the vote to 48.9 per cent for Mr. Moon. That result was within the poll's margin of error of 1.2 percentage points.
Other exit polls were split, with one station giving Ms. Park the win an even narrower win – at 49.6 per cent to 49.4 per cent – and another forecasting a victory for Mr. Moon, with the human rights lawyer claiming between 49.7 and 53.5 per cent of the vote to between 46.1 and 49.9 per cent for Ms. Park. The latter survey was conducted by telephone.
Ms. Park's win sets the stage for her return to the Blue House, South Korea's presidential residence, 33 years after she left it following the assassination of her father, Park Chung-hee by his own intelligence chief. Ms. Park's mother was assassinated five years before her father (by North Korean agents), thrusting the then-22-year-old into the role of First Lady, charged with receiving the spouses of foreign heads of state.
Ms. Park's campaign relied heavily on the support of older South Koreans who remember her father as an autocrat, but also the man who oversaw the country's remarkable transformation from war-torn backwater to one of the world's most developed countries. The association with her father helped her overcome some deeply held prejudices among male voters.
"She has already had the experience of being a First Lady, so even though she's a woman, she's capable of running the country," said Jung Sung-chun, a 66-year-old tour guide working this week in Imjingak, a park and observation point on the South Korean side of the heavily armed border with North Korea.
"It's not just that she's a woman, it's her whole narrative," said Hans Schattle, associate professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul. "There's a certain segment of the population that will vote for Park Geun-hye no matter what she says, no matter how little she says. There's another segment that will never vote for Park Geun-hye."
Many younger voters, however, were wary of Ms. Park's unwillingness to fully renounce her father – she apologized to victims of his security services, but also described his 1961 coup as necessary. Voters under the age of 40 were more drawn to the 59-year-old Mr. Moon, a son of North Korean refugees who campaigned on the twin themes of the need to combat growing inequality in the country, as well as rapprochement with Pyongyang.
Mr. Moon was chief of staff to former president Roh Moo-hyun, who embraced the "Sunshine Policy" of engaging North Korea and providing it with economic aid in hopes of modifying the regime's combative behaviour.
Many of Mr. Moon's supporters took photographs of themselves outside polling stations on Wednesday and posted the pictures to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in an effort to encourage other young people to vote.
"Until last night I wasn't sure if I was going to vote or not. I thought about it a lot and decided I can't change things if I don't vote," said Anna Oh, a 26-year-old financial consultant who voted in central Seoul.
The once wide gap between Ms. Park and Mr. Moon closed rapidly in the final weeks of the campaign, as two other contenders dropped out to back his candidacy. Many had predicted that Mr. Moon could stage an upset if turnout was high.
The tight race appeared to bring out many new voters. Despite subzero temperatures, there were long lines outside many polling stations and turnout among the 40 million eligible voters was reported at over 75 per cent, up from 63 per cent in 2007, when Mr. Lee won a landslide.