REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- Voters on Wednesday will elect a new mayor in a tense, down-to-the-wire race between liberal and conservative candidates whose vitriolic tone many say could set a chilling precedent for next year's presidential election.
If so, there will be political bloodshed across South Korea in 2012 as the acrimonious slugfest between liberal Park Won-soon and his ruling-party-backed competitor, Na Kyung-won, is playing out like a cover-your-eyes trailer for an election day horror film.
In a nation of bruising politics, where fistfights, hair-pulling and tie-yanking among national lawmakers is common, the Seoul mayoral race has stood out for its rancor. It is billed as a close fight between Park, a male political neophyte, and Na, a female national lawmaker and former judge.
Many believe the sniping between the two camps has stooped to embarrassing levels.
Park has accused Na, who is backed by the ruling Grand National Party, of using her political connections to keep government investigators from probing a family-run business. He's even lampooned what he calls her obsession over looks, noting that she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on dermatological work.
Na has taken her own shots, claiming an non-government organization run by Park has secretly accepted money from conglomerates the foundation has criticized. She also accuses him of forging his family registration and academic history.
In a recent televised debate, Park bemoaned what he called vicious personal attacks.
"I have suffered a great deal from the GNP's false propaganda and personal slanders," he said. "It is sad that the ruling political party should show such graceless behavior."
Next year, South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy will hold parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for April and November, respectively.
Opinion polls show the ruling party and the opposition are running neck-and-neck, both at the national level as well as in the race for Seoul mayor, a position held by conservatives for the last decade.
The top job in the city of 10 million people, which accounts for one in five South Korean residents, is one of the nation's high-profile political posts. Two incumbents have gone on to become head of state, and former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak later became the country's president.
Political experts here worry that the mudslinging in the Seoul election might spill onto the national scene as South Koreans in 2012 vote on whether to continue the Grand National Party's get-tough policy on North Korea and close economic and military ties with the U.S.
"The mayoral race has been awfully dirty," said Ahn Yinhay, a professor of International Studies at Korea University. "If it's a preview of what we might expect in national elections next year, that really worries me."
Some barbs made against Na have bordered on discrimination against women, she said. In one attack, Na, the mother of an autistic daughter, was accused of visiting homes for disabled kids in order to use the youths as props in a political photo op.
Although other observers agree that the mayoral slugfest has been hard to watch, they said they don't believe the maliciousness will necessarily play out on a national level.
"It depends on who the candidates are next year, how the personalities will line up," said Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University and an expert on the South Korean presidency.
He said the mayoral race has been an eye-opener for Park, who is engaged in his first political battle.
"He was never a public official, and now as Koreans we're getting to know him, how he fares against the barrage of his competitor."
Many say the fight has been dumbed down to tabloid-newspaper levels. After Na issued a voter-friendly list of "five false promises" by Park, the minority-party candidate fired back with "five reasons why Na should not be mayor."
When Park recently received the backing of Ahn Cheol-soo, a popular entrepreneur and professor with a Steve Jobs-like popularity here, the Na campaign struck back.
The photogenic Ahn, the campaign said, "should not snoop around the political arena, making use of academic reputation and taking sides with a specific party."
Na has received public support from Park Geun-hye, the former chairwoman of the Grand National Party. Many say a victory by Park would be regarded as a sweeping victory for civic groups and other political outsiders over established party politics.
But Hahm said he believes that a pro-U.S. national agenda will not change whether South Korea's next president is liberal or conservative.
"It could get ugly, but one thing both sides agree on, that a good relationship with America has become important to South Korea," he said.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Na Kyung-won of the ruling Grand National Party and opposition-backed Park Won-soon at a recent debate. Credit: Yonhap News Agency / EPA