SEOUL, South Korea — Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the South Korean autocrat who ruled the country for much of the 1960s and '70s, became the country's first female president on Tuesday, according to exit polls.
Park narrowly beat her liberal opponent in one of the closest and most divisive elections in recent years.
With a third of the votes counted, South Korea's three biggest television networks were earlier predicting a definite win for Park; Reuters reported a confirmed win at about 10:30 EST.
"South Koreans are mostly not surprised that Park won, but rather that she won by a larger margin than expected," reported GlobalPost's East Asia correspondent Geoffrey Cain in Seoul.
"Throughout the day, and especially in the late morning and after, the voter turnout was surprisingly high despite the frigid weather, culminating at 75 percent when the polls closed at 6 p.m."
Talking to South Koreans who voted today, Cain said, "the most immediate question they asked me was, how the heck did that happen, especially with Moon gaining serious momentum in the last week and trying to peg every scandal possible on Park?
"The answer appears to be an incredibly high turn-out in the conservative strongholds in the southeast, which backed both the dictator decades ago and his daughter today."
Park leads the conservative Saenuri party, but many South Koreans still associate her with her father. While some credit the late Park Chung-hee with turning South Korea into an economic powerhouse, others still harbor resentment over his repressive policies, according to the LA Times.
"Older voters, especially from the southeast, remember Park Chung-hee fondly and Geun-hye's association with him has definitely helped her in the campaign. The day before the vote, she campaigned among nostalgic older voters using slogans of economic development that her father once used," said Cain.
"She's also convinced middle-aged voters that she is the right candidate to implement the idea of "economic democratization," which both the right and left were proposing in a remarkably similar way."
Yonhap news agency said Park was preparing to make a victory speech in Seoul on Wednesday evening.
Foreign Policy noted: "The unmarried admirer of Queen Elizabeth I [Park] has engineered a remarkable political rise, cultivating an image as a reserved and morally upright leader."
Park is expected to continue the policies of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, but she said she would try to repair the South's relationship with North Korea.
Geoffrey Cain contributed reporting from Seoul.