The ongoing presidential election is different from past ones in many respects. Most of all, the election is being rushed as a result of the first-ever ouster of the president due to impeachment.
Also conspicuous is that the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that resulted in Park’s impeachment alienated many people from conservative parties. The race is therefore dominated by two liberal candidates -- Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo -- with the two conservatives -- Hong Joon-pyo and Yoo Seong-min -- trailing far behind.
This unusual situation, where there is no strong conservative candidate, is bringing about changes -- some of them positive -- to the election landscape. The most noticeable development is that the deep-rooted regionalism is not exerting its ugly muscles as seriously as in the past.
Korean presidential elections used to be a two-way contest between a conservative and a liberal. Usually, conservative candidates received overwhelming support in the southeastern provinces and liberals in the southwest.
It was not rare for a candidate to receive as many as 80 to 90 percent of votes in these regions. In other words, the nation was divided along regional and ideological lines, with mutual antagonism between the two sides often escalating to the degree to be called “nation-ruining illness.”
This tradition is being broken largely due to the collapse of the conservative bloc, which was caused by the scandal involving Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil and the consequent demise of the Park presidency.
Even Park’s supporters -- as well as those on the fence -- were angered and frustrated by what Park and Choi did, which boosted popularity of Moon as the next president. Moon rode the public sentiment and raced ahead of other candidates, until March.
Hardcore conservatives opted to support former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and after Ban’s withdrawal from the race, many of them switched allegiance to An Hee-jung, a moderate liberal who challenged Moon in the nomination race of the Democratic Party of Korea.
With An out of the race, conservatives and centrists who had supported Ban and then An are apparently lining up for Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party. Ahn has been fast catching up with Moon, leaving three other major contenders -- Hong, Yoo and Sim Sang-sung of the far-left Justice Party -- far behind.
The fact that Moon and Ahn are competing for the top spot in the southeastern region and that Hong and Yoo register minimal popularity ratings is good evidence that the race is not affected by regionalism as heavily as in the past.
Voters in the southwest who used to provide an overwhelming support to the main liberal party -- this time Moon’s Democratic Party -- are also facing an unfamiliar situation -- choosing between two liberal candidates.
Moon was a key aide to the late President Roh Moo-hyun whose five-year rule had not been so popular with people in the southwest, and that gave rise to Ahn’s party in the region, as evidenced by its victory in the parliamentary elections last April.
In the initial stages of the Park-Choi scandal, a majority of voters in the southwestern region supported Moon as Ahn’s popularity was negligible. As Ahn has been gaining strength in recent weeks, some liberal voters in the region are deserting Moon. The latest polls put Ahn ahead of Moon in most parts of the region.
The latest developments in the southeastern and southwestern provinces show that this election will have greater voter mobility.
One of the most decisive factors will be whether dedicated conservatives, including those in the southeastern provinces, will go back to support Hong or Yoo, in which case Moon will have a high chance of victory over Ahn.
If they believe there is no chance of either Hong or Yoo winning the election, they will choose Ahn, which would boost his chances greatly.
It is still hard to predict who will eventually emerge victorious in the southwestern region. The two leading candidates are running a close race in many parts of the region, with opinion surveys showing their approval ratings within the margins of error.
The relief from regionalism may be a one-off phenomenon caused by the Park-Choi scandal. Nevertheless, it is at least good to see an election without the usual regional antagonism.