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[Newsmaker] Ahn’s return challenges progressives

Former professor and presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo is once again creating a stir in the political arena with plans to run in the April 24 by-election and create a new party.

Unlike Ahn’s presidential bid last year that dealt a heavy blow to President Park Geun-hye’s campaign, the former venture entrepreneur’s latest political ambition will likely spell trouble for the opposition.

On Sunday, Ahn’s former campaign aid Rep. Song Ho-chang announced that Ahn would be returning to Korea on March 10 and that he would run in the parliamentary by-election for the Nowon-gu C district in April “in the name of new politics.” Ahn has been staying in the U.S. since the opposition’s presidential election defeat in December. 
Ahn Cheol-soo (The Korea Herald)
Ahn Cheol-soo (The Korea Herald)

The constituency was left vacant after a court ruling stripped the seat from Roh Hoe-chan, the leader of the minor opposition Progressive Justice Party. The Supreme Court last month confirmed his conviction for disclosing illegally obtained information.

The developments have rattled the main opposition Democratic United Party that continues to reel from the election defeat.

“As (Ahn) as a progressive bloc candidate in the presidential election, it is logical for him to negotiate with various progressive camps in choosing his course. In that regard, announcing that he will run in Nowon may have been rash,” Rep. Sul Hoon of the DUP said at Monday’s emergency committee meeting. He went on to suggest that Ahn should run in Busan’s Yeongdo-gu adding that recent research had shown that Ahn would easily defeat a conservative candidate in the area.

“If Ahn runs in Busan, he can play a lead role in breaking regional friction, and that is an essential part of new politics; it is very regretful that this was not considered.”

The ruling Saenuri Party, in contrast, appears to be taking the news in stride.

“(Ahn) does not require too much attention. What stir would be created by a person who has already failed to achieve (his) goal in the presidential election,” Rep. Yoo Ki-june of the Saenuri Party said at the Supreme Council meeting on Monday.

Such sentiments appear to be generally accepted by the Saenuri Party Supreme Council with some members reported to be saying that the sooner Ahn returns to politics the sooner the “bubble of his popularity” would pop.

Regardless of the DUP’s hopes to have Ahn as a champion of the progressive bloc in the southern city, Nowon C electoral district, which has been described by critics of Ahn’s decision as the “easy way,” represents a number of advantages for Ahn.

In addition to the history of Nowon C voters choosing progressive politicians in the past, the area has a large number of relatively young voters who formed the bulk of Ahn’s supporter base in the run up to the Dec. 19 presidential election.

Of the about 590,000 Nowon-gu residents, about 280,000 are aged between 19 and 49, the age group that showed the highest support for Ahn as a presidential candidate.

The fact that the district is in Seoul will also help Ahn in laying foundations for his political career, and avoid possible friction with Rep. Moon Jae-in of the DUP, whose constituency is also in Busan.

The race for the Nowon C constituency will, however, be a battle among opposition parties with whom Ahn was directly or indirectly allied with in the presidential election.

The DUP’s chief for the region Lee Dong-sub has announced that he will run for Nowon C, while both the Progressive Justice Party and the Unified Progressive Party have made it clear that they will each run a candidate for the constituency.

As such, minor opposition parties and progressive pundits have expressed stronger opposition to the developments.

Progressive Seoul National University law professor Cho Kuk has referred to the decision as an announcement of Ahn’s intent to “step on the progressive parties” to launch his political career while the New Progressive Party compared Ahn’s running in Nowon to a conglomerate opening a small bakery.

For his part, Roh Hoe-chan has criticized Ahn for using a tactic from what he calls “old politics” saying that Ahn did not ask for his understanding about the decision to run in Nowon C electoral district.

“It was a short phone conversation where pleasantries were exchanged and (Ahn) extended consolation for the court ruling,” Roh Hoe-chan said.

“Having a short phone conversation 1 hour and 30 minutes before the scheduled press conference and later making it appear that an understanding was reached is not new politics but old politics.”

Roh Hoe-chan also stressed over whether his former constituency could be retained by the opposition.

“Nowon C is an area where the opposition bloc can secure a seat without Ahn,” Roh Hoe-chan said in a radio interview on Monday. Roh went on to say that Ahn should be looking to gain a seat in Busan to follow a path similar to that taken by late former President Roh Moo-hyun.

The former president entered the National Assembly in the late 1980s as the representative for a Busan district as a member of the progressive party.

With Busan, as with other areas in the Gyeongsang provinces, having strong conservative colors, Roh Moo-hyun’s achievement was widely considered a step toward breaking the east-west political divide. Traditionally the southeastern regions are strongholds of the conservatives while the Jeolla provinces on the western side of the country are the main supporter base for the progressive parties.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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