|Ahn Cheol-soo’s (right) entry has launched a three-way presidential race along with the ruling Saenuri Party’s Rep. Park Geun-hye (left) and the main opposition Democratic United Party’s Rep. Moon Jae-in. (Yonhap News)|
Revered by young voters tired of established politics, the entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Cheol-soo finally confirmed Wednesday he is running for president as an independent.
Describing his bid as the “choice of the people,” Ahn distanced himself from the existing parties with a pledge to create new politics that go beyond division and hatred.
“Although I may be short of direct political experience, my experiences in various IT, medical, management and education fields shall be a plus for me, rather than a minus,” Ahn told reporters during a question-and-answer session.
Ahn’s entry has launched a three-way presidential race along with the ruling Saenuri Party’s Rep. Park Geun-hye and the main opposition Democratic United Party’s Rep. Moon Jae-in.
Observers said the true test of Ahn as a presidential candidate will now begin.
“It remains to be seen whether Ahn will be able to create a new order in politics that will go beyond simply stimulating the political parties,” said social science professor Jung Hae-gu. “Ahn’s successful settlement into politics is crucial for the development of Korea’s partisan politics,” he said.
Political science professor at Seoul National University Chun In-young agreed: “The process of becoming a president takes time, money and a training period. But he has come out without such preparation and political experience, without which he may face a series of trials and errors.”
Without specifying his policy pledges, Ahn gave a general outlook about the problems that he believes are facing the country.
“We cannot open the future with a political system that fails to reflect the will of the people, aggravating polarization and an economic system that fails to create jobs, a social system that obstructs upward mobility and a structure without fair opportunities that overprotects the rich, and an outdated decision-making (process) that backtracks in the knowledge industry,” he said.
Proposing that Park and Moon come together and “promise to compete on policies in good faith with the people as witness,” Ahn vowed he would never engage in negative campaigning.
Support from the largely unaffiliated moderates in their 30s and 40s with white-collar jobs are considered crucial for the contenders vying with the similar platforms of political overhaul and economic democratization.
An alliance between Moon and Ahn for a single candidacy to go up against conservative frontrunner Park will also be the deal breaker in the neck-and-neck race.
“It is not yet a time to discuss a union, which should be accomplished only upon the consensus of the people,” Ahn said.
It is a shared opinion among the observers that Moon and Ahn will test the waters for the next month through the Chuseok thanksgiving holiday before deciding whether and how to form a partnership to unite progressive voters.
The Saenuri Party, meanwhile, is preparing a full-on attack on Ahn. Party sources say they have over 20 rumors that cast doubt on Ahn.
The party, suffering a major setback with a series of irregularity allegations against its key pro-Park members, is also considering bringing Ahn as a witness to the National Assembly audit to verify the questions.
The DUP, for its part, is under pressure to rejuvenate, not only to win back departed progressive votes, but also to provide justification for Ahn to join the party, pundits said.
“The DUP must quickly show that it is changing, so as to enable Ahn to join them in order to win against solid frontrunner Park. One such way could be to set up a political reform taskforce and release a set of blueprints and pledge to implement them,” Jung said.
Progressive observers showed optimism that with the advance of Ahn, an integrated ticket would be possible, going beyond the broken alliance with the embattled Unified Progressive Party.
Both Moon and Ahn hail from Busan, a traditional political stronghold for the conservative Saenuri.
The dynamism of the race was apparent in popularity surveys, with the support ratings of each major candidate fluctuating.
A poll by JTBC and Realmeter on 1,500 respondents earlier this week showed Park remaining in the lead with 38.6 percent against Moon’s 26.1 percent and Ahn’s 22.5 percent.
But in a head-to-head race, Moon surpassed Park 47.1 percent to 44.0 percent, the first time since Realmeter commenced its regular polls in July.
In a standoff with Ahn, Moon also led marginally by 44.9 percent to 32.3 percent.
Another poll, however, conducted by Research & Research showed Park take the lead against Moon with 47.6 percent.
Prior to his press conference, Ahn has been gauging opinions of experts from diverse fields through behind-the-scenes meetings, speeches and regional tours.
Two of Ahn’s key mentors are former Finance Minister Lee Hun-jai and Chonbuk National University professor Kang Joon-man, both of whom have publicly expressed their support toward the former venture business guru.
In a book “Economy is politics,” Lee had said, “The Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon is a trend of the times and a symbol of a new value that is springing up from the base of the society.”
Kang, meanwhile, said his support was for Ahn Cheol-soo as a person but not for the so-called Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon that opponents deride as a “fad.”
Key tasks for Ahn will be to grasp the attention of moderate voters whose interest drastically waned following his drawn-out decision, observers said.
Ahn must also overcome criticism that he has zero experience in politics or administration, although he has repeatedly emphasized he has always been a public servant as CEO of his software company Ahnlab.
The research company, established in 1995 after years as a one-man operation by Ahn to produce anti-virus software, has been dubbed a model example of corporate social responsibility by distributing software programs to individual users free of charge.
From the existing parties, Ahn had met with former lawmaker Kim Boo-kyeom, while DUP Rep. Song Ho-chang drew attention by accompanying lawmaker Keum Tae-sup at his press conference, claiming to have been blackmailed by a Saenuri member.
By Lee Joo-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)