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[Editorial] Unfavorite contenders

Presidential race degrading into choice from among candidates most voters dislike

A poll conducted last week showed only about 30 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of each of the three main contenders for the nation’s next presidency.

In the poll of 1,000 South Koreans aged 18 and above, just 32 percent of respondents said they felt favorable toward Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, who was nominated on Oct. 10 as the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s candidate for the presidential election in March.

He might have some comfort from the similarly low proportion of the respondents having a favorable view of the two front-runners in the ongoing presidential primary of the main opposition People Power Party -- former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and Rep. Hong Joon-pyo. According to the latest monthly poll by Gallup Korea, merely 28 percent and 31 percent of the respondents felt favorable toward Yoon and Hong, respectively.

In contrast, an overwhelming proportion of the pollees had an unfavorable view of the three leading presidential contenders: 60 percent for Lee, 62 percent for Yoon and 59 percent for Hong.

It is unusual for leading presidential runners from main political parties in the country to be viewed by voters so unfavorably. In the previous presidential elections, the proportion of voters with a favorable opinion of major candidates tended to hover around 50 percent.

With negative campaigns against rival contenders intensifying, unfavorable views of them are expected to further grow in the runup to the presidential election to be held on March 9. Political observers say that, in the upcoming election, many voters will be compelled to choose from among candidates they dislike.

Lee, the liberal ruling party’s presidential nominee, is expected to resign from his gubernatorial post this week to focus on his presidential campaign. Throughout the campaign period, however, he is likely to be haunted by his alleged implication in a corruption-laden property development scandal he oversaw in 2015 when he served as mayor of a satellite city of Seoul.

He has denied any wrongdoing. But his flip-flopping remarks and objection to an independent counsel investigation into the scandal have deepened public suspicion of his involvement in the housing project that guaranteed huge profits for a dubious asset management firm preferentially selected as a partner with a municipal development corporation in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

Public sentiment against the governor was further aggravated by what was seen by critics as his brazen and inconsistent testimony during a parliamentary audit of his provincial government last week.

Yoon, the leading opposition presidential contender, has eroded his public support with a string of improper remarks.

The former top prosecutor recently stirred up criticism when he praised former military-backed authoritarian President Chun Doo-hwan by claiming many people believed he handled political affairs well, aside from his bloody suppression of a 1980 pro-democracy uprising and his seizure of power in a coup. On Friday, he reluctantly apologized for the controversial remark.

But he soon came under fire again when a photo of his pet dog being fed an apple was posted on an Instagram account under the dog’s name hours after his apology. In Korean, the words for “apology” and “apple” are homonyms.

Though later deleted, the photo prompted further criticism that Yoon was not truly sorry and had mocked the people critical of him as dogs.

Consecutive controversies raising doubts about Yoon’s judgment have disappointed or disenchanted even many of his supporters pinning hopes on him to reestablish fairness, common sense and rule of law, which they see as having been undermined under President Moon Jae-in’s government.

Hong, who is vying with Yoon to become the presidential nominee of the conservative main opposition party, may be seen to be in a position to benefit from the fallout of the controversies surrounding Lee and Yoon. But his own remarks detached from or going against voter sentiment have done little to boost his popularity with the electorate.

The presidential race among candidates probably the least-favored by voters carries the risk of further deepening public skepticism of domestic politics.

What is needed to lead the race in the proper direction is a quick and thorough investigation into the property development scandal and efforts by contenders to focus on suggesting concrete visions and policies for the nation’s future.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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