Gwangju will once again play a crucial role in deciding the future of the progressives, with the main opposition party struggling against former colleagues.
On Monday, independent Kang Woon-tae was selected as the unified independent Gwangju mayor candidate, putting Yoon Jang-hyun of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy in an even more precarious position.
Kang, a former Gwangju mayor, absorbed the campaign of former lawmaker Lee Yong-sup. Both Kang and Lee had been members of the NPAD until they recently severed ties in protest of Yoon’s nomination.
For years, Gwangju has been “in the bag” for the main opposition party. This year, however, the main opposition is fighting an uphill battle despite the merger with Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, whom many saw as the champion of “new politics.”
Despite the advantages the NPAD gained from the ruling Saenuri Party’s decline in the wake of the ferry disaster, Yoon struggled to gain on Kang. In an attempt to appease Gwangju voters, Ahn apologized for failing to consult the citizens in naming Yoon, saying that the decision was made to “widen the choice for Gwangju.” Ahn’s words, however, fell on deaf ears, doing little to raise Yoon’s ratings against Kang.
Although polls vary, Kang was seen as having a significant lead on Yoon even before the merger with Lee. As the sole independent candidate, Kang is considered to have as much as a 23 percent lead on Yoon.
According to professor Shin Yul of Myongji University, the gap between Yoon and the independents is the result of the NPAD “having offended Gwangju’s pride.”
“(Yoon) was little-known even in Gwangju, and his nomination amounts to (the party) saying ‘anyone we pick will win,’” Shin said, adding that Gwangju has played a pivotal role in Korean politics. Although Yoon is a Gwangju native, he has little political experience. Yoon only recently entered mainstream politics as a cochief of Ahn’s new politics group, which was to be the foundation for a new party. The organization has since been absorbed into the NPAD, formerly the Democratic Party.
Shin said the nomination of Yoon may be taken as a move to strengthen Ahn’s power base and that the NPAD candidate was unlikely to win.
“The only scenario in which Yoon wins is if Gwangju citizens consider it likely that Ahn will win the presidential race, but survey results are mixed.”
As a potential presidential candidate, Ahn has slipped significantly since the 2012 presidential election. Ahn was one of the three main candidates until he gave way to the main opposition’s Rep. Moon Jae-in.
In a recent survey conducted by a local news network, Ahn ranked fourth among likely presidential candidates after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Moon, and Seoul mayor candidate Park Won-soon.
Experts say that for the NPAD losing the Gwangju mayoral election will mean much more than losing a local administrative post.
Losing the election to a candidate who left the party in protest of its candidate nomination process would seriously undermine the leadership’s position, and open up more room for hard-liners.
For Ahn, Kang’s victory could have much more dire consequences.
“He presented himself as an alternative for the Democratic Party, but if he cannot win the trust of Gwangju, his foundations will gradually weaken,” Yang Seung-ham, professor of political science at Yonsei University, said.
“(The NPAD losing Gwangju) would be the result of Ahn failing to meet the expectations for new politics. People still want new politics, but it will indicate that people do not consider Ahn to be right for the job.”
By Choi He-suk (email@example.com)