South Korea’s acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn is increasingly becoming seen as a potential presidential candidate, and as the beleaguered ruling Saenuri Party’s best shot at salvaging the conservative camp after President Park Geun-hye’s scandal-ridden demise.
While Hwang has not explicitly said whether he will run in this year’s presidential election, political pundits say he appears to be harboring presidential ambitions, making high-publicity moves as the nation’s leader.
Selected by Park to be the nation’s prime minister and now filling in for the impeached president, Hwang thrust himself into the national spotlight again Monday, speaking with US President Donald Trump by phone.
President Park, impeached by the National Assembly on Dec. 9, is suspended from duty, pending a final verdict from the Constitutional Court on her fate. If the top court finalizes her impeachment, an election to pick a successor must be held within 60 days.
According to the poll by Realmeter released Thursday, Hwang gained a support rating of 7.4 percent, coming in fifth on the list of presidential hopefuls.
Liberal contender Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea is leading the pack with 32.8 percent.
Among conservative hopefuls, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is the strongest, placed second, after Moon, with 15.4 percent. Hwang is the second-strongest conservative contender.
The survey was conducted from Jan. 23 to 24 on 1,004 citizens over the age 19.
Although Hwang’s poll rating is only about half of Ban’s, experts take notice of his rise.
Ban’s support rating has been going downhill since his return to Korea on Jan. 12, as the former career diplomat has not clearly stated his political position and pledges.
“Those fighting against the impeachment of President Park direct their political support toward Hwang. There are possibilities that Hwang’s approval rating may soar because there is not a strong candidate on the right,” said Shin Yul, politics professor at Myongji University.
Hwang’s strong moves as acting president are thought to hint at his interest in the Blue House.
In his New Year’s greeting on Jan. 23, Hwang addressed some controversial key issues including the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system and the comfort women issues with neighboring Japan and vowed to thoroughly review them.
When he was asked about the prospects of running in the presidential election, he avoided a direct answer.
“(The candidates’) approval ratings are not my concern. My priority lies in stabilizing the nation and the livelihoods of the public,” Hwang said at a press conference in the Seoul Government Complex building.
As some had expected Hwang would only be a figurehead to fill in the blank spot for the president, his actions while acting state leader have led opposition parties to condemn him for “acting as if he is the real president.”
In case the acting president decides to run in the presidential election, however, a tough road lies in front of him.
If the Constitutional Court rules to remove Park from office, Hwang would automatically be in charge of supervising the resulting election.
To run in that election himself, Hwang would have to resign from his prime ministerial position at least a month before the election to declare his run. That would mean the acting president role would be passed onto current Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho, which would likely raise criticism from political parties for its unfairness.
By Jo He-rim (email@example.com