Next Year's Presidential Race Already Starting Behind the Scenes?
SEOUL, Dec. 23 (Yonhap) -- As the result of the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye could bring forward the date of the presidential election by a few months, potential contenders from both the ruling and opposition blocs are busy setting strategies to win the country's top elected office in 2017.
While parties have yet to appoint their own standard-bearers, it is not unthinkable that upwards of four candidates with the support from parties could seek the presidency, due to the breakup of the ruling Saenuri Party. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's potential candidacy is also one of the key issues that could rock the upcoming dash to the presidency.
Other likely figures to compete include Moon Jae-in, former head of the Democratic Party who lost against Park in a 51.6 percent to 48 percent vote in 2012. Moon still stands as one of the most favored politicians among liberal-leaning voters.
Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung, former People's Party chief Ahn Cheol-soo and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon are also making headlines as presidential contenders.
Such figures spent a busy December keeping close tabs on each other since they may have a limited amount of time to prepare for their campaigns in the event that the president is ousted from power.
Park was impeached by parliament earlier this month due to a scandal that has rocked the nation for weeks. It marked the second time for the National Assembly to seek an ouster of the president in South Korea's contemporary history.
By law, the Constitutional Court must make a final ruling within 180 days. Should the court uphold the ouster motion, the country has 60 days to hold an election. While the court is yet to decide, observers said that technically an election could be held as early as April.
"As there may be little time, potential candidates must move quickly," Yoon Tae-gon, a senior political analyst at the think-tank Moa, told Yonhap News Agency.
Yoon claimed that it is likely that the Constitutional Court will approve the impeachment, adding a decision to allow Park to stay in the presidency until early 2018 would lead to a strong public backlash.
For now, the opposition parties seem to have gained the upper hand.
The main opposition Democratic Party and the splinter People's Party have many potential contenders who have expressed presidential ambitions and can generate public support.
In contrast, the conservative bloc is suffering from a shortage of candidates with enough charisma to offset the damage caused by the impeachment.'
To make the situation worse, Saenuri's internal factional feud is expected to lead to a split that can pose new challenges.
The group protesting against Park loyalists said at least 35 lawmakers will leave by the end of this year, which would be enough to meet the minimum number of 20 needed to form a negotiation body at the National Assembly.
If successful, the group may garner up to 40 lawmakers, making it the third-largest political body in parliament, outpacing the 38 seats held by the People's Party.
While the new party may come up with a candidate to run in the election, conservatives are seriously struggling to win the hearts and minds of the people, compared with their liberal rivals.
A recent Real Meter poll showed Moon posting an approval rating of 22.2 percent this week, while the Seongnam mayor's numbers stood at 11.9 percent.
Ban, who is unlikely to run as a Saenuri candidate even if he enters the race, secured 23.1 percent. Ahn, who once locked horns with Moon, posted 8.6 percent. The survey was conducted on 1,519 South Koreans this week, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
In contrast, Saenuri members were nearly at the bottom of such polls.
In last week's poll, Oh Se-hoon, former mayor of Seoul, and Rep. Yoo Seong-min managed to post 2.9 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively. South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo held a comparable figure of 1.1 percent.
Amid the lack of capable figures, some conservative politicians, especially Park loyalists, claim Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn could be an option, citing his rich experience in the political realm.
Many in the conservative bloc, however, are pinning their hopes on the U.N. secretary-general, who will return home in January.
Although he served as a foreign minister under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration, Ban is well-respected by conservative voters.
This week, Ban said he would devote himself to the development of South Korea based on his extensive experience at the United Nations.
"I am deeply thinking about how I should make contributions," Ban said.'
While conservatives are suffering from a lack of candidates, opposition parties may have a hard time trying to sort out the contenders, although Moon remains at the top of the pack. Key liberal figures in particular have started to distance themselves from Moon.
Sohn Hak-kyu, also former leader of the main opposition party who stayed clear of politics for some time before returning, argued Moon's leadership is "hegemonic."
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who has been outpaced by the Seongnam mayor, claimed candidates should be allowed to compete openly, adding that a single dominant candidate will prevent the emergence of new contenders.
Seongnam Mayor Lee also received backlash over speculation he is seeking to establish the so-called anti-Moon union. He later denied such claims.
Rep. Park Jie-won of the People's Party was more straightforward. He recently claimed Moon violated the rule of law after he said there would be a revolution if the court turns down the ouster of Park.
The People's Party is seeking to stand between the conservative and opposition factions. With entrepreneur-turned-politician Ahn's approval rating slipping vis-a-vis rivals, the party has also been seeking to recruit Sohn.
Pundits, meanwhile, said candidates will engage in a sort of psychological warfare for the time being until the opposition bloc streamlines the number of contenders.
"Clearly, more than two major candidates will compete in the upcoming election," Yoon said. "Although Moon is taking the lead, we cannot say that he is dominating the game."
In a separate poll conducted last week, Moon is expected to post an approval rating of 31 percent, followed by Ban and Ahn with 23.6 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively. Yoo posted 5.5 percent.
Moon and Ban, meanwhile, earned approvals of 46.8 percent and 35.5 percent, in a hypothetical two-way race in which they run for the Democratic Party and Saenuri, respectively.
Lee and Ban posted 42.3 percent and 39 percent, respectively, if they are to run for the Democratic and Saenuri parties, it also showed.
Ban and Ahn are expected to post 36.8 percent and 35 percent, respectively, in a hypothetical showdown.
Yoon said the weakening of the conservative bloc will make it less likely for liberals to seek a single candidate.
"Establishing a solidarity is only possible when there is a mutual enemy. For example, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the United States agreed to join hands to fight against Donald Trump," Yoon said. "Any pro-Park candidates, or even Ban, will not be strong enough to induce opposition parties to unite."
Nevertheless, the opposition parties' contenders are refraining from openly discussing the election before the Constitutional Court finalizes Park's ouster.
"Now is not the moment to discuss the primary and related schedules," a Democratic Party official said. "We must avoid the impression that the opposition bloc sought the impeachment to win the presidency."