Moon Jae-in (pictured above, top), a former chief of staff to president Roh Moo-hyun, won the presidential nomination on Sunday of the main opposition party in South Korea, the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’), and today, Ahn Cheol-soo (pictured above, below), a popular doctor-turned-entrepreneur launched an independent bid for the presidency.
Both are, somewhat, novices to electoral politics in South Korea. Moon is the former chief of staff to the late former president, Roh Moo-hyun, and Ahn is a complete outsider to South Korean politics.
Both pull support from the same pool of generally liberal and moderate voters — meaning that if neither drops out before the December 19 election, neither currently would stand much of a chance against the frontrunner, Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’ / New Frontier Party).
The essential fact of the South Korean presidential race is that if neither Moon nor Ahn steps down in favor of the other, Park will win the election. Every poll, including the latest one from Real Meter, conducted Sept. 17-18, demonstrates this glaring threshold truth: Park leads with around 39%, Moon follows with 26% and Ahn wins 22.5%. Although over the course of the month, Moon has moved from 15% and third place (drawing support from both Park and Ahn) into a stronger second place, arithmetic is arithmetic. Moon and Ahn may seesaw as the favorite challenger to Park, but Moon, having easily won DUP’s primary, now faces another sort of primary — with Ahn — to consolidate the liberal and moderate vote.
Furthermore, even if one candidate bows out soon enough to allow for a unified challenge to Park, the road that either Moon or Ahn faces ahead is tricky.
Even in a one-on-one race with Park remains competitive against either Moon or Ahn. So the longer it takes for either Moon or Ahn to back down as the chief alternative to Park means that the race will focus less on Park and more on the Moon vs. Ahn aspect.
Park, as I’ve written before, is virtually defying gravity in that she’s run nearly a flawless campaign — after rebranding her party from the ‘Grand National Party’ to the Saenuri Party late last year, she led her party from a bit behind to win South Korea’s parliamentary elections in April, notwithstanding the incredible unpopularity of the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak (who Park challenged for the then-GNP presidential nomination in 2006). Since then, she’s essentially been running victory laps through South Korea, and co-opting the message of the opposition by championing issues that are the traditional turf of the left in South Korea — strengthening the social welfare system and reducing income inequality. Until either Moon or Ahn drops out, the storyline will be Moon and Ahn, while Park glides, rather presidentially, above the din. Continue reading Moon, Ahn candidacies officially set South Korean presidential field