We’ve rounded the last bend and are into the final stretch of this ‘Fascinating Race’. On 19th December, South Korean voters will elect a new president to the Blue House. Here is what has been happening since part 2.
Independent no more
First came the stepping down of Ahn Cheol-soo. On November 23rd, in an emotional speech, the independent candidate put an end to his run for the presidency and threw his support behind liberal candidate Moon Jae-in.
Initially it was unclear whether his support was truly behind Moon. The two had previously participated in a live debate / ‘primary’ to let the voters decide which of the two they wanted on the ballot against conservative Park Geun-hye (Ahn and Moon were splitting the liberal vote, giving Park a strong advantage). However, a clear winner never emerged because Ahn and Moon couldn’t settle on the polling question that would decide the winner. This bickering, along with various miscommunications, led to a stalemate and then the stepping down of Ahn. Later, Ahn reconfirmed his support for Moon and began campaigning with him.
At the very least, the independent candidate brought some fresh air to the South Korean political landscape. One of Ahn’s chief policy goals was political reform and perhaps his popularity and his swift entry onto the political scene will help spur some debate on this issue. Either way, it’s back to business as usual, as the country’s two major parties square off ahead of the vote.
And then there were two. Shortly following Ahn’s resignation, campaigning for the presidency started in earnest. The first television ads were telling. The conservative Saenuri Party’s candidate, Park Geun-hye, was portrayed as a strong fighter who will protect her country. If elected, she would become Korea’s first female president. The liberal Democratic United Party (DUP)’s Moon Jae-in was featured as an ordinary man of the people. His rags-to-riches story perhaps gives weight to his economic policy of equal opportunity. Both candidates are emphasising ‘economic democratisation’.
In stump speeches, Moon attacked Park on her links to the unpopular sitting president Lee Myeong-bak (also of the Saenuri Party) and on her father (controversial former president Park Chung-hee). Meanwhile Park attacked Moon on his role during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun. Moon had various rolls in the Roh administration, including Chief of Staff from 2007-2008. Although Roh was regarded as a popular president (2003-2008), his presidency had its fair share of criticism. Eventually bribery allegations surfaced leading to his suicide in 2009.
Geographically, the south-east of the country has traditionally belonged to the conservative Saenuri Party and the south-west to the liberal DUP. But the central province of Chungcheong is an important battleground province and was the first stop on Park’s campaign trail. Moon, meanwhile, headed to his hometown near Busan in the south-west to garner some support there.
The first debate on 4th December has been humorously described as a ‘catfight’ between favourite Park and very distant 3rd placed Lee Jung-hee of the left-wing United Progressive Party. The second debate (topic: the economy) saw the two front runners in decent form. Even though there was no decisive winner, Park seemed to have an edge over Moon (in this writer’s opinion).
A December surprise
As discussed in Part 2, a decisive issue in this election is the two candidates’ attitudes towards North Korea. Although both candidates promote closer ties with the North, Park is viewed as having a more hard-line approach, while Moon is viewed as having softer stance. For example, Moon wants sanctions lifted and immediate dialogue between the two nations, while Park wants an apology for recent attacks made by the North.
The issue of North Korea took prime position following a ‘December surprise’ – the North’s successful launching of a long range missile (that may have put a satellite into orbit). The recent missile launch is a clear reminder of the North’s military capabilities and the tense potential for conflict on the Korean peninsula. To a lesser extent, perhaps it also highlights the failure of the Lee administration (Saenuri Party) to effectively deal with the country’s neighbor to the north. It will be interesting to see how this event plays on voters’ minds as they head to the booths.
And the polls…
In the recent US election, the pollsters were bang on the money. So what do the polls say in South Korea? Three polls produced slightly varied results, but with less than one week remaining before Election Day, Park still holds a decent lead.
|SBS-TNS Korea poll:||Park 48.9%, Moon 42.1%|
|Munhwa Ilbo-Korea Research poll:||Park 42.8%, Moon 41.9%|
|JoongAng Ilbo survey:||Park 48%, Moon 42.1%|
While it looks sunny for the conservative party, it is not yet in the bag. Firstly, there are still a lot of undecided voters. Secondly, winning Seoul has historically been crucial to victory, and here Park’s lead is slimmer. And lastly, Park’s lead has been narrowing over the last couple weeks. In summary, watch this space.
That’s it for part 3 of this ‘Fascinating Race’. As Election Day approaches, this writer expects a decent dose of frenzy and excitement in the Land of the Morning Calm.
Other articles in the series: