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(News Focus) Park Geun-hye faces tough challenges in run-up to Dec. 19 polls
By Lee Joon-sung
SEOUL, Aug. 20 (Yonhap) -- Despite a comfortable win in the ruling party's presidential primary, Park Geun-hye's road towards December's presidential polls is expected to be painful and fraught with challenges, as she strives to become South Korea's first woman president, political watchers said Monday.

   The five-term lawmaker who easily secured the ruling Saenuri Party's nomination ticket in the primary election now has to prepare a campaign strategy that can maximize her strengths while at the same overcoming her weaknesses. There is less than four months remaining before the Dec. 19 poll.


Park, who as interim leader played a key role in Saenuri winning 152 seats out of the 300 up for grabs in the April 11 parliamentary elections, has consistently been the favorite contender in the ruling camp to succeed conservative President Lee Myung-bak, whose five-year term ends next February.

   More recently, however, Park's lead has been contested by Ahn Cheol-soo, an entrepreneur-turned-professor who is popular for his clean image and zero affiliation with South Korean politics.

   Opinion polls have shown Park and Ahn running neck-and-neck, although the founder of the anti-virus software firm AhnLab and current dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University has not officially declared he will run for president.

   Both Park and Ahn's rating are in the 40 percent range, well above other hopefuls. Park's support is centered with conservatives and South Korea's older generation, with Ahn receiving the backing of younger citizens, progressives and opposition-leaning voters.

   Despite Ahn's popularity, he lacks political experience, has no political party affiliation, viewed as critical in a nationwide election, and is perceived as indecisive in making known his presidential ambitions. That could result in Park's competitor being Rep. Moon Jae-in, according to the political watchers.

   Moon, a former chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun, is leading in the polls among the five hopefuls for the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) presidential race.

   "Park is presently way ahead of Moon in ratings, although the gap could shrink if the DUP's primary election generates public interest before the party picks its presidential candidate in mid September," a Saenuri watcher said. The source said because Moon has made public his intent to draw Ahn as an ally to the opposition's cause, Park could face stiff challenges ahead of the election.

   Ahn previously showed his ability to influence votes by endorsing Park Won-soon, a little known civic group activist, to win last year's by-election for Seoul mayor.

   To cope with the competition, Saenuri is gearing up to create a powerful election camp that is likely to include rivals from inside the party and "new faces" that can expand Park's appeal to a wider audience.

   Park said during the primary race she will embrace all sides and strive for a country that transcends the conservative and progressive political divide.

   Insiders said that with the primary over, Park will seek assistance from rivals such as Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo, who came in second in the party primary, as well as the help of former South Gyeongsang Province Governor Kim Tae-ho, former Incheon Mayor Ahn Sang-soo and Yim Tae-hee, the former chief of staff to President Lee Myung-bak.

Park Geun-hye (2nd L) casts her vote ahead of the party's presidential primary election on Aug. 18. along with other contenders. (Yonhap)

She may also call on the support of Rep. Lee Jae-oh, who boycotted the primary but could be an asset, as he has been one of the most influential politicians in the current administration.

   Despite the need for Park to consolidate her support within the party and among conservatives, the five-term lawmaker is under pressure from people such as Kim Chong-in, an economist-turned-politician, who co-chaired Park's primary election campaign committee, to win the support of more outsiders.

   Political watchers said striking a balance between winning support from both traditional allies and outsiders will be key to the successful launch of Park's formal presidential election campaign team, which should be formed by late September.

   The composition of the campaign team is important because it could set policies such as "economic democratization," which is expected to be a key issue in the upcoming race.

   Park has been one of the leading proponents of economic democratization with her emphasis on stricter regulations and oversight of the country's large business groups, which effectively dominate the country's economy and its wealth.

   The family-run business groups, known as "chaebol," played a key role in boosting South Korea's export-driven economy in recent decades, but have long been the target of public criticism over their perceived abuses of economic power.

   Others in the conservative camp have been more reserved on the issue and said economic policies should be centered on growth.

   The ruling party's stance on economic issues is different from that of the opposition, which has for the most part called for tough restrictions that could even lead to the break-up or downsizing of the chaebol.

   In other areas, Park, a daughter of former president Park Chung-hee who took power in a coup in 1961 and ruled the country until his assassination in 1979, will have to make clear her views on past controversies.

   The lawmaker triggered heated debate recently she said the coup that brought her father to power was his best possible choice at the time. She has been reluctant to call the military takeover a coup and has referred to the event as a "revolution," which has a less negative connotation.

   Former President Park is widely credited with bringing about South Korea's prosperity, but has been attacked for repressing dissent and any form of opposition.

   Kim Moon-soo said during the primary race that Park's father stamped out the spirit of democracy that flourished after a popular uprising kicked out the corrupt Rhee Syngman administration in 1960.

   "President Park used the military to exercise authoritarian rule," the governor said.

   In addition, Park will likely be pressured to deal with the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation, which critics claim was stolen from a local businessman in 1962 by soldiers.

   Park was chairwoman of the board's foundation from 1994 through 2005, and the present head, Choi Phil-lip, is a close confidant of the presidential hopeful.

   Her opponents have claimed that the foundation is "stolen property" taken from the previous owner under duress. The foundation has also been a source of feuding between Park and her younger sister Park Geun-ryong. The Saenuri presidential candidate has maintained that she has no sway over the public foundation.

   Ruling party sources, meanwhile, said with the primary over, there will be a concerted effort to increase Park's public exposure to help her improve her image among voters and showcase her policies. This, they said, is important because she currently does not have a clear opposition opponent to be a source of comparison.

Park Geun-hye (R) poses for a photograph with visitors at the Bucheon International Comics Festival on Aug. 18. (Yonhap)

"The public already considers Park as a politician who adheres to principles and is trustworthy, so Saenuri is expected to capitalize on these attributes in the future," said Mok Jin-whyu, an administrative science professor at Seoul's Kookmin University said.

   Others predicated Park may take steps to push forward policies such as lowering college tuition fees as pledged by Saenuri during the parliamentary race in an effort to win younger votes.

   Independent watchers added that in order for Park to become president, she and Saenuri will have to step up their efforts to appeal to a broader constituency, particularly young voters and those living in the capital city of Seoul, which is home to a quarter of the country's population.