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[Election 2017] TV debate aggravates uncertainty over conservative votes

A sliver of hope may be in store for Bareun Party presidential candidate Rep. Yoo Seong-min, following the first televised debate in this year’s presidential election.

Conservative contender Yoo, along with Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party, is considered to have stood out by maintaining focus on his policy vision and clearly delivering his views.

While the two front-runners -- Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea and Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party -- spent much of the time arguing with each other and conservative rival Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, Yoo was left relatively free to convey his views.

Hong, in contrast, was noted more for his unrestrained attacks against his rivals. Hong referred to Moon as the “main enemy,” a term also used by the military to refer to North Korea, when grilled by Yoo. Hong also shifted the focus to past actions of administrations linked to Moon, and Ahn’s People’s Party.

The main contenders in South Korea's presidential election (from L to R): Hong Joon-pyo, Ahn Cheol-soo, Yoo Seong-min, Sim Sang-jeung and Moon Jae-in. (Yonhap)
The main contenders in South Korea's presidential election (from L to R): Hong Joon-pyo, Ahn Cheol-soo, Yoo Seong-min, Sim Sang-jeung and Moon Jae-in. (Yonhap)

Opinion polls conducted before the Thursday debate placed Yoo last among party-backed candidates, alongside Sim. Yoo’s party was also soundly defeated by the Liberty Korea Party in Wednesday’s by-elections, which prompted the latter to claim the conservatives were banding behind it.

However, as predicted by some, Yoo’s standout performance during the debate has raised hopes for the minor conservative candidate.

His party assessed the debate as having provided Yoo with the opportunity to show “the magnitude of his capabilities and his political convictions.”

In addition to possibly drawing voters away from Hong, some have speculated it remains possible for him to attract votes from Ahn.

Ahn’s support rating rose quickly after he was confirmed as his party’s candidate, putting him in a neck-and-neck race with Moon. However, pundits say that much of the support Ahn has gathered is likely to be from voters who consider him the only viable alternative to Moon.

Ahn, who began his career in mainstream politics in the Democratic Party, has been taking on an increasingly conservative tint in his economic and national security policies. Since his party’s primaries began, Ahn has emphasized the private sector’s role in the economy, and that he considers the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system necessary.

Political watchers predict that opinion polls, to be released in the weekend, will be the barometer for voter sentiment in the Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province region, which is a political home turf for conservatives.

In addition, the first round of the TV debates could impact support in the wealthy Seocho and Gangnam districts of southern Seoul, which typically votes for conservative candidates.

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