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(News Focus) S. Korea picks new president after corruption scandal, impeachment

2017/05/09 09:00

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, May 9 (Yonhap) -- South Koreans headed to the polls Tuesday in the final chapter of a six-month saga that began with the discovery of a suspicious tablet PC, unfolded in a raft of graft allegations and a wave of candlelight rallies, and culminated in the removal of a president once revered as the heroine of conservatives.

The election was triggered by the downfall of Park Geun-hye mired in a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal involving her friend, aides and the nation's top business moguls.

Park was elected in December 2012 on the back of yearning for the economic success achieved under the 18-year rule of her father, Park Chung-hee. But her presidency was marred by slow growth, inter-Korean tension, unsuccessful policies and a series of national debacles including a deadly ferry disaster in 2014.

This pool photo shows former President Park Geun-hye entering the Seoul Central District Court on March 30, 2017, to attend a hearing on her arrest warrant. (Yonhap) This pool photo shows former President Park Geun-hye entering the Seoul Central District Court on March 30, 2017, to attend a hearing on her arrest warrant. (Yonhap)

The scandal began when cable TV channel JTBC broke the news in October of a tablet PC allegedly used by Park's longtime friend Choi Soon-sil. The device contained government documents, including drafts of presidential speeches and classified information.

The revelation snowballed into allegations that Choi, who had no official position in the government, meddled in state affairs and abused her ties to Park to extort money from conglomerates including Samsung Group.

Within days, the prosecution established a task force to investigate the allegations, while liberal civic groups staged their first anti-Park candlelight rally in downtown Seoul.

Millions of people joined similar rallies demanding the president step down and in December, the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach Park.

This compilation image shows citizens rallying in separate pro-impeachment (R) and anti-impeachment (L) protests in central Seoul on March 4, 2017. (Yonhap) This compilation image shows citizens rallying in separate pro-impeachment (R) and anti-impeachment (L) protests in central Seoul on March 4, 2017. (Yonhap)

The resolution was sent to the Constitutional Court, which had the final say on whether to unseat or reinstate the president. The liberal bloc, represented by the main opposition Democratic Party and the splinter People's Party, received a boost in its campaign to retake power following a 10-year break from government.

Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, was again propelled to front and center of the political scene as opinion surveys indicated he was among the most favored potential candidates for the next commander-in-chief.

Moon served as chief of staff to the most recent liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, and lost to Park in the last presidential election in 2012.

Deeply bruised by the presidential scandal, conservatives scrambled to find a candidate who could challenge Moon in an election already unfavorable to their camp.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emerged as a highly likely figure after long being rumored to have presidential ambitions. Upon completing his term at the U.N. in December, the former foreign minister returned home in January to high expectations and much fanfare. But after weeks of political offensives targeting him and his family, Ban renounced his presidential ambitions. The conservatives' options were largely reduced to Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, but he, too, opted out.

In March, the Constitutional Court upheld Park's impeachment in a unanimous ruling. With her removal, the government was legally required to hold a snap presidential election within 60 days.

The election was set for May 9 and the presidential primaries kicked off. By early April, the lineup was complete with Moon of the Democratic Party, Hong Joon-pyo of the former ruling Liberty Korea Party, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party, Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party and Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party.

This pool photo shows the leading presidential candidates ahead of a TV debate in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, on April 25, 2017. From left are Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party, Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party and Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party. (Yonhap) This pool photo shows the leading presidential candidates ahead of a TV debate in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, on April 25, 2017. From left are Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party, Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party and Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party. (Yonhap)

Looking back, support for Moon was nearly unchanged at some 30-40 percent. Ahn briefly emerged to challenge the front-runner following his sweeping victory in the primaries and after apparently absorbing some of the support previously received by Moon's in-house rivals.

But the former software mogul eroded much of his voter appeal in a series of TV debates that ran from April through early May, according to observers. By the week before the election, his support fell back to about half of Moon's at under 20 percent.

The election saw its share of negative campaigning, including allegations that Moon's son received favors to land a job at a government organization when his father worked at the presidential office, or revelations that Hong was involved in a failed rape attempt on a co-ed during college.

The main issues of the campaign were national security, welfare and jobs. In particular, candidates clashed over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea. They also attacked Moon over fresh allegations that the Roh administration consulted North Korea before abstaining from a U.N. North Korean human rights resolution in 2007. Moon was Roh's chief of staff at the time.

But none of the issues dominated the race, experts said.

"In the last election, economic democratization and welfare formed the core pillars around which candidates launched their offensives," Choi Chang-ryul, a politics professor at Yong In University, south of Seoul, told Yonhap News Agency. "This time, it was more a battle of 'frames' as the election period was short, there wasn't much time to prepare, and it was a five-way race."

   Instead of fighting over policy, the candidates were too busy framing the election in a way that would sway conservative and undecided voters in their favor, he explained.

"This election should have been about cleaning up old evils because it was driven by the candles," he added. "But that was lost somewhere."

   Song Ho-keun, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, said he saw a wide gap between the people's call for restoration of their sovereignty and the candidates' election pledges.

"What we saw on the squares was a call for people's sovereignty, but I'm skeptical about how much political change the candidates are talking about, how much change in governance they're talking about, and whether they've demonstrated a clear understanding of the governance (required for people's sovereignty)," he told Yonhap. "I don't see how this election is different from the past elections in that sense."

   hague@yna.co.kr

(END)

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