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On eve of South Korea vote, Park sounds father's battle cry

Park Geun-hye (R), presidential candidate of conservative and right wing ruling Saenuri Party, visits the Korea Exchange during her campaign
Park Geun-hye (R), presidential candidate of conservative and right wing ruling Saenuri Party, visits the Korea Exchange during her campaign

By Somang Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) - With just a day to go before a tight presidential vote in South Korea, front-running conservative candidate Park Geun-hye evoked her dictator father's economic call to arms in a bid to rally her party faithful.

She pledged in a news conference to recreate Park Chung-hee's "Let's Live well" miracle of rapid economic gains for a country that she said was laboring under heavy household debt, the high cost of raising children and poverty among old people.

Data shows that South Korean households are more indebted than those in the United States were just before the 2008 credit crisis.

The elder Park's 18-year rule from 1961 to 1979 helped transform South Korea's from a war-torn backwater into an export powerhouse. In a bid to get people to work towards prosperity, a song based on the "Let's Live Well" catch phrase blared out from loudspeakers across the country under his rule.

Park's daughter had earlier sought to distance herself from the divisive legacy of her father's rule that also saw political repression in the name of securing the country.

The gap between the conservative Park and her left-wing challenger, Moon Jae-in, could be as little as 0.5 percentage points, according to some polls.

"It comes down to the demographics of the voter turnout," said Hong Hyung-sik of pollster Hangil Research.

Polls show that older voters are more likely to pick Park and more likely to vote, while Moon is reliant on more fickle younger voters.

Park would be South Korea's first female president.

She campaigned on a platform of "economic democratization", better regulation and more welfare spending and has tacked back to the right in recent days with a more conciliatory tone towards business.

PROMISES

On a visit to the country's stock exchange on Tuesday, Park called for growth and job creation through innovation and investment in science and technology.

"To help the KOSPI index reach the 3,000-mark, we need to grow the pie and make new jobs, new growth engines and new markets," she said, pledging that she would achieve this in her 5-year term.

The benchmark KOSPI index of core South Korean stocks, has been trading at a 200-day moving average of 1,924.41 points.

Park has also said that she wants to increase welfare spending from its current level of 7.6 percent of gross domestic product, less than half the rich nation average of 19 percent, but she has not spelled out by how much.

Her plan to fund this hinges on cutting wasteful spending and increasing the tax base, rather than through tax increases.

Park has signaled that she will not take action to break up a system of cross-shareholdings through which a few families control a sprawling network of so-called chaebol, or industrial conglomerates, that dominate South Korea.

The top 5 chaebols, which include household names such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, make up more than half the value of all listed South Korean companies.

Her rival, Moon, has promised an $18 billion jobs package on top of existing spending plans and to crack down on the chaebol, although they have often proved more resilient than governments.

In his final news conference on Tuesday, Moon tied Park firmly to the ruling party, which he said had proved unworthy of governing.

"If you don't rebuke them, the wrongs will continue. It is time to be harsh and pick up the rod to beat them. Tomorrow is that moment," he urged.

More than 40 million people are eligible to vote on Wednesday. The polls open at 6 a.m. (2100 GMT) and close at 6 p.m. (0900 GMT).

The winner will take office in February after the mandatory single term of President Lee Myung-bak ends.

(Editing by David Chance and Robert Birsel)

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