Prospects for South Korean presidential race blurred by factional strife, regrouping

Protesters attend a rally calling for the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 19, 2016. Almost one million South Koreans marched on Saturday night to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye over her biggest political scandal since she took office in February 2013. (Xinhua/Yao Qilin)
Protesters attend a rally calling for the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 19, 2016. Almost one million South Koreans marched on Saturday night to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye over her biggest political scandal since she took office in February 2013. (Xinhua/Yao Qilin)

South Korea has entered an initial phase of presidential race since the country’s parliament overwhelmingly passed a historic bill last week to impeach scandal-scarred President Park Geun-hye.

Uncertainties remain about when and whether the constitutional court would permanently remove Park from office, but every move of potential candidates to replace Park is put on local media spotlight as voters already began looking for their next leader.

By law, the court has up to 180 days to deliberate, but its nine justices are placed under severe pressure to bring forward its final conclusion. A presidential election must be held within 60 days if the court justifies the impeachment.

The political development greased the ways for the opposition bloc. According to a Gallup Korea survey released on Friday, the main opposition Minjoo Party ranked first in approval scores at 40 percent, the highest-ever it earned.

It is the first time in 18 years that any opposition party has won so much support. The ruling Saenuri Party followed it by a wide margin with 15 percent, and the minor opposition People’s Party came in third with 12 percent.

Occupying higher ranks in recent presidential polls are potential contenders in the opposition bloc, but factional strife in the governing party and the probable regrouping between opposition and ruing blocs blur the clear prospects for presidential race.


Presidential primary for the Minjoo Party is forecast to become a showdown between Moon Jae-in, the biggest opposition party’s former head, and Lee Jae-myung, mayor of Seongnam, a city to the southeast of capital Seoul.

In accordance with higher popularity of their party, Moon’s approval rating as presidential candidate rose to 24.0 percent, topping the polls for the seventh consecutive week, according to a Realmeter survey released on Thursday.

Entering this year in the low single digit, support for Lee skyrocketed in recent weeks and moved into a third place at 16.1 percent. Lee became a rising star in recent surveys as he was one of major politicians to participate, at the very beginning, in candlelight vigils to demand President Park’s resignation.

Moon and Lee have many in common in terms of views on security, diplomatic and economic policies, but they have different merits and demerits that they may face as challenges in the upcoming primary.

They place dialogue over pressure in addressing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s nuclear program, prefer a balanced diplomacy to avoid siding with one party, and pursue fairness and justice in the economy that has been controlled by a fraction of family-run conglomerates.

Moon may be a safe choice for liberal voters as he was the party’s presidential candidate in the 2012 election, where he narrowly lost to President Park, and was chief of staff to late President Roh Moo-hyun, the country’s most respected president who symbolizes the decentralized presidential power.

Moon’s links with Roh had been denounced by conservatives as pro-Roh politics. His failure to defend, which caused negative awareness on such politics, may pose a challenge to Moon once again, changing the “political frame” into the pro-Moon politics.

“It was aimed at throwing me into the frame of pro-Roh and anti-Roh politics,” Moon told foreign correspondents in Seoul on Thursday, saying that despite such attempts, support for him and his party rose to the highest among rival candidates and parties.

Meanwhile, Mayor Lee has a life story as dramatic as his social welfare policies during his two-term mayorship. He was born into a poor family who slashed and burned fields at a mountainous area, and moved to Seongnam to work as a teenage laborer in a paint factory.

Teenager Lee lost his sense of smell and had his left arm shattered under a machine, Lee said in an interview with Xinhua earlier this week. Despite the ordeal, he taught himself and passed the bar exam, serving as a lawyer defending labor activists and as a civic group activist supervising bureaucratic corruption.

Supporters praise Lee as a reformist politician, but detractors criticize him as a dangerous populist, which Lee may face as a challenge to gain support from conservative voters. In a country where welfare services are poorly built, even moderate social safety nets have brought strong backlashes from conservative politicians.


The Minjoo Party’s showdown between Moon and Lee is almost a foregone conclusion, but factional strife in the ruling Saenuri Party and shortage in popularity for the minor opposition People’s Party obstruct the clear predictions for presidential race.

In last Friday’s impeachment vote, nearly half of the 128 Saenuri lawmakers voted for the bill to impeach President Park. Intra-party rifts widened between pro-Park and anti-Park factions, which are pointing at each other to leave the party.

The People’s Party, which is mostly composed of former Minjoo Party members who defected after a cut-and-thrust factional battle, gained 38 parliamentary seats in the April general elections, but the problem is that it suffers from a dearth of public support to win presidency.

Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, a software mogul-turned-politician who once led the less-than-a-year-old party, has a support score of 8.5 percent, about half the third place. Ahn, the rising star in the 2012 presidential election, threw support behind Moon, but he bolted from the Minjoo Party to take his own line.

One of likelihoods is that the People’s Party and the Saenuri’s anti-Park faction form a coalition in the upcoming presidential election, opening a so-called “third playing field” where non-mainstreamers in both ruling and opposition blocs compete to field a single candidate.

Rep. Kim Moo-sung, who is known to lead the anti-Park clan, said Friday that he would deliberate for a week on whether to create a new party, according to Yonhap news agency report. Kim, who was once one of powerful presidential hopefuls in the ruling bloc, had declared his withdrawal from candidacy.

The greatest variable is Ban Ki-moon, outgoing UN Secretary-General, whose choice could bring about a three-way or even a four-way race as seen in the 1987 presidential election. His two, five-year terms in the top UN post is scheduled to end by year-end.

The career diplomat has never officially declared an ambition to run for president in his home country, but his candidacy has been brought up in opinion polls as his post is believed to have raised the country’s stature.

Ban, who once topped presidential surveys, saw his approval scores decline in tandem with President Park’s fall as he is known to be close to Park and her party. Still, he maintains the second place in recent polls.

The 73-year-old is seen as the only remaining hope for conservative voters as there is no distinguished contender in the ruling bloc for the presidential race.

If Ban declares his candidacy in the pro-Park faction, the presidential election would be turned into a three-way race competing with candidates from the Minjoo Party and the third playing field. If he opts to create his own party, the four-way race could come, and there remains a possibility for him to join the third playing field. Enditem

Source: Yoo Seungki, Xinhua/

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