South Korean presidential race tightens as Moon rival joins opposition
SEOUL – The upcoming presidential election in South Korea has turned into a hotly contested face-to-face with a former prosecutor who was initially seeking an independent candidacy to join the main opposition party.
Former Attorney General Yoon Seok-youl officially joined the Conservative People’s Power Party last Friday. He has conducted opinion polls as being best positioned to replace progressive President Moon Jae-in, whose single five-year term ends in 2022.
Yoon announced his candidacy in June, posing as an independent from neither People Power nor Moon’s Democratic Party. But it was not long before he changed tack.
“In order to effect a change of government, it makes sense to join the biggest opposition party and participate honestly and squarely in the intra-party elections,” Yoon told reporters on Friday, referring to the November primary of People Power ahead of the March 2022 presidential election.
Yoon’s approval rating has taken a hit in some polls as Reformers accuse his wife, Kim Keon-hee, of corruption and criticize his pre-marriage life.
Winning a long presidential campaign usually requires the funding and organizational capacity that only a large, established political party can provide. With this in mind, Yoon decided to join a party earlier than planned.
Fourteen candidates are expected to participate in the People Power primary. Choe Jae-hyeong, a former chief auditor, is expected to announce his candidacy on Wednesday. Choe pushed back on Moon’s plans to shut down nuclear power plants. There are those who see Choe as a more stable hand than scandal-torn Yoon.
The main polling bodies are divided on which party leads. Gallup Korea valued the Democratic Party at 35% and the People’s Power at 28% in a late July poll. But People Power was 1.6 points ahead in a Realmeter poll at the time.
People Power and its predecessors have struggled to stay relevant since 2017, when Moon was first elected. The party lost by a landslide in the 2020 general election and even apologized in December for the transgressions of previous leaders.
His fate began to change this year with the electoral victories of the mayors of Seoul and Busan. People Power then caused a stir by electing 36-year-old tech entrepreneur Lee Jun-seok as their new leader – a move that did a lot to signal a clean break.
The failures of the ruling government’s real estate policies as well as the irregularities of officials, which pushed young voters away from Democrats, largely contributed to the Democratic mayor’s losses.
But it is not clear whether the loss of Democrats is the gain of popular power. Changing voters in urban areas will ultimately decide the presidential election in March.
The Democratic presidential primary takes place in October, a month before that of People Power. Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung is the frontrunner, followed by former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon.
The two Lees sit outside the party’s pro-Moon mainstream and have been torn apart over each other’s past records and comments as they vie for support for that faction. Candidate alliances could also tip the balance of a second round if no one gets a majority in the first round.