With former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropping out of the race, the dynamics in South Korean presidential contest are shifting significantly.
While the liberal Moon Jae-in is holding onto his firm, but slightly weakened lead, the nation’s acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn appears to be the biggest beneficiary of Ban’s unexpected exit from contention Wednesday.
Hwang Kyo-ahn (Yonhap)
In the latest poll, conducted after Ban’s surprise announcement and released Thursday by Realmeter, Hwang saw his support jump to 12.1 percent, placing himself second only to Moon. With a remarkable 7.5 percentage point rise in less than a week, the acting president rose to second place, formerly held by the UN top official.
South Gyeongsang Province Gov. An Hee-jung of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea also pulled off a surprise rise, garnering 11.1 percent support. He took the third place.
Moon’s popularity fell slightly to 26.1 percent from 29.1 percent last week.
Of the three, only An has formally announced his presidential bid.
An Hee-jung (Yonhap)
Moon is thought to be gauging the best timing to announce his candidacy, but Hwang has not yet made clear whether he plans to run. Political pundits say he appears to be harboring presidential ambitions, making high-publicity moves as the acting president filling in for the impeached President Park Geun-hye.
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.
If Hwang decides to run in the election, he would have to resign from his prime ministerial position at least a month before the election to declare his run.
Calls are rising inside the beleaguered ruling Saenuri Party to push for Hwang’s candidacy in the presidential race, as Hwang is seen as the party’s best shot at salvaging its election chances after President Park Geun-hye’s scandal-ridden demise.
But his moves are difficult to predict, as he is currently representing the incumbent Park administration as the acting leader of the nation.
Other conservative candidates include Reps. Yoo Seong-min and Nam Kyung-pil of the splinter Bareun Party, which broke from Saenuri last December after the faction clashed with the party’s leadership of Park loyalists.
The approval rates of the two presidential hopefuls edged up after Ban’s dropout but are still weak, with Yoo’s standing at 4.3 percent and Nam’s, 2 percent, falling far behind Hwang and other liberal candidates.
Since his return to South Korea on Jan. 12, the former career diplomat had not been affiliated with any political party, thereby letting loose of his supporters to drift to presidential candidates across the aisle.
It is not so clear where the unclaimed votes from Ban’s withdrawal are heading, but some liberal candidates saw increases in their approval ratings as well.
As voting results are often seen as to be swayed by regionalism in South Korea, many of Ban’s supporters were thought to have come from the Chungcheong Province from which he hailed. If following this regional tendency, these voters may gravitate toward the Chungcheong Province-based candidate An.
Opinions are divided over whether Ban’s exit help Moon’s chances. A competitor from the same party, Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung predicted it may even harm his support.
“Though Moon is currently the No. 1 candidate of the left wing, he will have to hit a ceiling (in his support rate),” Lee said in a local radio broadcast on Thursday. “Moon is indeed in a dominant position now, but has some limits to expanding the range of his supporters.”
Another liberal presidential candidate, the People’s Party’s Ahn Cheol-soo, may benefit from Ban leaving the race.
“The election dynamics are changing and Ban’s dropout can be seen as an opportunity for Ahn, as Ban and Ahn had somewhat similar centrist stances in politics. He can differentiate himself from other candidates now,” Myongji University politics professor Kim Hyung-joon said.
Ahn has been teetering to hold some 10 percent of approval rate in polls, with the latest figure standing at 9.3 percent in Wednesday’s Realmeter poll.
Still, Moon is thought to be in high spirits after the exit of his main rival Ban from contention.
By Jo He-rim (email@example.com