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Prospect of early election shakes things up for all

With President Park Geun-hye awaiting the final decision on her impeachment, political circles are already shifting their focus to the next presidential election -- likely to take place sooner than previously expected.

While those who fancy a fair chance in the race are counting this modified timeline as an opportunity to rise and grasp power, others are jittery over the pressing schedule for campaigning.

Some, on the other hand, claim it is still too early to discuss the election and candidacy as the fate of the embattled president is under discussion.

Regardless of what’s at stake, it remains that the sudden change in the nation’s political system will act as a historical turning point for both the ruling and opposition camps, as well as their potential candidates.
February, April, June and August

The race to choose President Park’s successor was originally set for Dec. 20, 2017, but this election day is likely to be moved to somewhere between February and August.

According to the Public Official Election Act, presidential elections are to be held on the first Wednesday within 70 days ahead of the incumbent president’s end of term.

Since the 13th presidential race in 1987, which was the nation’s first-ever experience of electing a state leader through a democratic vote rather than a coup, the corresponding date has been the third Wednesday of December.

The most conservative scenario at this point in time is that the Constitutional Court will finalize its decision -- whether to uphold the impeachment or reject it -- by the legal deadline of June 6, 2017, or 180 days after the passing of the parliament’s impeachment bill.

Then, presuming the minimum period required for election campaigning, the vote could happen in August at the latest.

With mounting public pressure and concerns of a state affairs vacuum, however, it has been speculated that the top court will act quickly and come up with a ruling as early as January, in which case the presidential poll could be moved forward to March or April.

There had previously been talks of Park’s voluntary resignation, whether in immediate effect or by April next year, which would have led to a February or June election, but Park has now said she will not step down, impeachment or not.

Front-runners losing momentum

Ironically, it is the leading presidential hopefuls who seem to have suffered a blow from the likelihood of an early election.

Among them is Moon Jae-in, former chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea. According to a survey conducted by local pollster Realmeter last week, Moon maintained his lead for six weeks straight, with his support standing at 23.1 percent, the highest in the past six months.

But it was also precisely due to his uptrend that Moon has found it hard to raise his voice during the period of impeachment rallies. Lest his claim be seen as reflecting his ambition in a presidential bid, Moon refrained from making aggressive remarks against Park or her ruling Saenuri Party, an attitude perceived by many as lukewarm and timid.

Another uncertain variable in the top tier is outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The international figure has so far never gone further than a vague promise to “serve” his country after his current term ends, but has kept his spot within the top three all throughout the year.

Realmeter’s survey last week showed him to have 18.8 percent support, which was down from his former lead but still ahead of the second-tier runners, such as Ahn Cheol-soo and Lee Jae-myung.

Ban’s dilemma is contrary to Moon’s. While Moon may possibly enjoy the lasting aftermath of the widely cheered impeachment, Ban could use more time to resettle himself in domestic political circles and gear up for campaigning.

He is also left to decide whether he would stay independent and build up a new power group, or unify with one of the standing entities -- given that he will no longer join the Saenuri Party’s pro-Park Geun-hye faction, as had largely been speculated.

The rise of minority candidates

The president’s impeachment, in fact, opened the door to a number of second movers who found a chance to speak up during the weekslong state confusion leading up to the parliamentary vote last Friday.

The most conspicuous star was Lee Jae-myung, the outspoken liberal mayor of Gyeonggi Province’s Seongnam City.

A survey conducted by pollster Gallup Korea last week showed Lee to be the third-strongest presidential candidate, with 18 percent support, quickly catching up to Moon and Ban. This was a jump of 13 percentage points from his 5 percent in October, before the presidential aides’ corruption scandal broke out.

His straightforward way of speaking especially appealed to young liberal voters who were seeking an alternative to the more reserved Moon.

But due to his relatively volatile support base and limited political career, Lee is also said to be considering unity with other minority liberal figures, such as Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung and Democratic Party lawmaker Rep. Kim Boo-kyum.

In contrast to the Democratic Party, which seems to be crowded with candidates, the Saenuri Party is concerned over a lack of them. The situation is particularly desperate for the pro-Park faction, which has been driven into a corner upon Park‘s impeachment.

With Ban likely to be out of the picture, some are said to be turning their eyes to Hwang Kyo-ahn, the prime minister filling in for the suspended president.

Hwang, with his close affiliation with the president and low popularity, has never been counted as a relevant figure for the race.

But voices are increasing from the ruling camp that if he succeeds in proving himself a valid alternative state chief, Hwang may possibly rise to the qualification.

Overseas voters counted out

Meanwhile, the voters too face multiple challenges in case of an early presidential election, one of them being the exclusion of overseas voters.

Under the current Public Official Election Act, nationals residing abroad may only participate in regularly scheduled elections, a rule to undergo a change only in 2018.

This means that the 158,000 overseas voters who cast ballots in the 2012 elections will not be part of the next presidential selection, regardless of what month it is to be held in.

By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)
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