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SKorea’s presidential front-runner maintains innocence in fraud scandal

    SEOUL, South Korea — The former Hyundai CEO, now the front-runner in South Korea’s presidential election, denied involvement Tuesday in a stock manipulation case, accusing his opponents of spreading lies that would not derail his bid for office.
    Lee Myung-bak appeared headed for easy victory in Wednesday’s vote on his 66th birthday. The candidate of the main conservative Grand National Party, Lee has said he will abandon the presidency if he is found to be involved in financial irregularities.
    After amassing huge leads in opinion polls for months, Lee’s campaign suffered a blow when the National Assembly voted Monday to approve an independent investigation of him in the stock manipulation case.
    ‘‘Those who abused the legal system and their power will face a large backlash,’’ Lee told a news conference Tuesday. ‘‘Even if they investigate me 10 times or 100 times, the results will not change.’’
    The popularity of Lee, a former Seoul mayor, is attributed to the perception that he can inject new life into the economy after what has been viewed as lackluster performance under liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
    ‘‘Have you been happy over the past five years?’’ Lee asked more than 1,000 cheering supporters during a rally in Seoul on Tuesday. ‘‘If we have a capable leader, we won’t be afraid of Japan and China, and we can move forward even though the world economy is in a difficult situation.’’
    The latest development in the financial allegations surfaced after the liberal United New Democratic Party publicized a video Sunday showing Lee saying in 2000 that he founded the firm at the center of a stock manipulation case. A Korean-American who was Lee’s former business associate has been indicted in the case, but prosecutors had earlier this month absolved the candidate of responsibility.
    Lee has said the comments were taken out of context and denied the allegations.
    Roh, who had called for justice authorities to reconsider the case, said the probe would be a test for prosecutors.
    ‘‘If the same conclusion is made, that will serve as an opportunity for the prosecution to restore public confidence,’’ the president was quoted as saying by his spokesman, Cheon Ho-seon.
    The probe ordered by parliament authorizes a special prosecutor to be named by President Roh that can take up to 40 days to investigate — meaning it would be completed before the Feb. 25 inauguration.
    Lee’s opponents have seized on the scandal to try to tarnish him and keep him from power.
    ‘‘There has been no country in the world to elect a criminal suspect as a president,’’ independent conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang told reporters Tuesday. ‘‘President Nixon, who was ousted after telling a lie, remains as the most humiliating president in U.S. history.’’
    Liberal candidate Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party warned the nation would be plunged into chaos if Lee wins.
    ‘‘Most of the public would not recognize the president-elect and there will be a backlash,’’ Chung told supporters at a Seoul rally.
    Chung, a former unification minister who is a staunch proponent of engagement with North Korea, also criticized Lee for having a Cold War-era mind-set that could hamper ongoing reconciliation with the communist nation.
    ‘‘I’ll make us a young, dynamic country expanding its economic territory and spearheading the unity of Northeast Asia,’’ Chung told reporters Tuesday. ‘‘Peace is economy. The economy can change into peace and happiness.’’
    Experts predict the probe will not disrupt Lee’s ride toward the presidential Blue House that would end a decade of liberal rule in South Korea.
    ‘‘Even if there is wrongdoing, we have to elect a person who can revive the economy,’’ said Lee Min-sung, a 22-year-old university student.
    However, some voters said the questions around Lee changed their mind.
    ‘‘I had planned to vote for Lee but I decided not to because of the scandal,’’ said Yoo Mi-ja, a 50-year-old housewife.
    ————
    Associated Press writer Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.

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