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(News Focus) S. Korea's presidential race dominated by uncertainty, call for change
By Lee Joon-seung
SEOUL, Sept. 7 (Yonhap) -- With just over 100 days to go before the Dec. 19 presidential election, the local political landscape remains extremely murky, as the opposition camp has yet to single out a viable candidate to fight against the ruling Saenuri Party's standard bearer, Park Geun-hye.

   The main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) is scheduled to pick its own presidential candidate later this month, but will be forced to first resolve the "unified candidacy" issue involving Ahn Cheol-soo, a software entrepreneur-turned-professor, who enjoys strong support among young and reform-starved voters.

   Aside from the reigning uncertainty, mounting calls for change and competition to control the "spirit of the times" are expected to be dominant factors in this year's presidential polls, local political watchers said Friday.

   The watchers noted the election promises unprecedented change because it will be the first time a female candidate from a major party will compete, while a popular contender with no ties to any established party may join the fray. This raises the possibility the existing political order that has been maintained since 1987, when the country entered an era of democratization from authoritarian rule, could change this year.
Watchers also said until now, there has been very little talk among hopefuls of the need to end the regionalism that has been a benchmark of South Korean politics, or promises of economic growth that played a decisive role in the 2007 presidential race. Instead, all sides have highlighted their commitments to national unity, an expansion of welfare and economic democratization focused on helping small and medium enterprises, while curbing the economic monopoly exercised by major businesses.

   "The spirit of the time seems to be a call for change and a break with the past, as can be seen in the 'Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon,' and the candidate that can best portray this image has the best chance of prevailing in the polls," a political observer said.

   The phenomenon is seen as a desire for change and doing away with the "old politics" marred by incompetence, corruption and failure to meet demands by the general public.

Park Geun-hye (Yonhap file photo)

Park, a five-term lawmaker and the first woman to have a legitimate shot at becoming the country's chief executive, has made national unity her main campaign slogan. She has been the champion of political reforms to deal with corruption and called for expanded welfare coverage.

   DUP candidates such as Moon Jae-in, the front-runner in the party's primary and former chief of staff to the liberal camp's icon, late President Roh Moo-hyun, rallied behind the cause of asking voters to change the government and the ruling camp, which received flak for making peoples' lives more difficult in the past five years. He too has advocated economic democratization.

   Ahn, on the other hand, has called for a non-partisan approach to problems facing the country by emphasizing the need for greater communication and social fairness that includes reducing the power of conglomerates.

   Analysts said for Saenuri, there is very little uncertainty, because after Park, the daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, won her party's ticket in Aug.20, she has made an all out effort to seek unity and make amends with her personal critics and those opposed to her father, who ruled the country for 18 years with a strong hand and crushed dissent for the sake of economic growth.

   The 60-year-old lawmaker paid her respects at the graves of President Roh and President Kim Dae-jung, who was a vocal critic of her father.

   She also named Kim Chong-in, a reformist economist, to head a special committee on people's happiness and Ahn Dae-hee, a former supreme court justice, to lead the political reforms special committee. The happiness committee will be tasked with coming up with policies to push forward economic democratization, while the political reform committee will be tasked with formulating policies to root out corruption, particularly among people in power.

   Park has not been slow to correct her critical weaknesses, such as a lack of support among young people and the impression of not listening to others.

   The Saenuri hopeful engaged in discussions with university students in which she promised to reduce tuition fees and pledged to strive for more jobs.

   Party sources added she will soon make clear her views on her father's negative legacy.

   "There is a need (for Park) to make clear that past events involving President Park should not have taken in South Korea's modern history," said Chung Woo-taik, a close advisor to Park Geun-hye and a member of Saenuri's supreme council.

   Park caused an uproar by claiming in mid-July that the coup that brought her father to power was the best possible choice the Army general could have made at the time and the move could not have been avoided. She later "toned down" her stance by stating the action to take over the country was not "normal" and called on the public not to dwell on the past but seek to find solutions to tackle the challenges now facing the country. The lawmaker has also been vague about the rewriting of the 1972 Constitution that effectively allowed President Park to stay in power indefinitely.

Moon Jae-in (Yonhap file photo)

For the opposition camp, Moon, who is likely to win the primary after securing eight straight wins, will have to heal wounds within the party caused by allegations of mismanagement in the mobile voting process.

   The DUP is scheduled to pick a presidential candidate on Sept. 16, although this could be pushed back a week for a run-off election if no single candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes tallied.

   In the event he wins, the 59-year-old Moon will have to come up with a slogan to appeal to voters and overcome his relatively low popularity compared to Park and Ahn.

   Another factor he must shed is his ties to late President Roh, who remains a contentious figure.

   Political watchers added that Moon and the DUP will, moreover, have to successfully cope with the "single candidate issue" for the opposition camp.

   Most public opinion polls taken so far showed the opposition only has a chance of winning if it fields a single candidate, with a three-way race likely to result in its defeat.

   In a poll conducted on 1,500 people across the country Wednesday by local pollster RealMeter, Park won 40.7 percent of votes, with Ahn taking 22.9 percent and Moon 18.8 percent.

   The gap between Ahn and Moon has fallen to 4.1 percentage points, which is the lowest tallied so far, but the DUP hopeful is generally viewed as being the weaker contender.

   Reflecting this handicap, Moon said earlier in the week that DUP should lead the opposition's effort to pick a presidential candidate.

   He said it would be best if an agreement can be reached on a single candidate, but if this was not feasible there should be an open and fair competition to see who is best-qualified to win the support of the people.

   "With the support of the DUP, it is not inconceivable for the winner of the party's primary to become the single candidate representing the opposition camp," Moon claimed.

   Others in the DUP were more vague and said forging a single candidate must be the top priority, hinting that the party could loose the candidacy.

   Rep. Noh Young-min, who is managing Moon's primary campaign, made it clear there is no way both Moon and Ahn can run at the same time.

   As for Ahn, who is only potential candidate to have consistently run neck-and-neck with Park in the polls, speculations are growing he may make known whether he will compete for the presidency within the month.

   Many experts said that despite the DUP claiming Ahn must join the party as a precondition to picking a single candidate, there is a chance the opposition could settle on a loose coalition. A different scenario that could be more favorable to the party would be if Ahn supports a DUP candidate in the election.

   Notwithstanding Ahn's strength as a new face in politics and his clean image, the dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University and founder of AhnLab, South Korea's largest computer anti-virus software company, will have to weather stringent checks of his past, such as have caused popular support to stagnate in recent days.

Ahn Cheol-soo (Yonhap file photo)

Recent media reports that showed Ahn bought a small apartment in southern Seoul in 1988 right after his marriage have not helped his cause. The purchase became an issue mainly because Ahn claimed to have personally known the sorrow faced by many ordinary people who live in rented homes.

   Political watchers, meanwhile, predicted the upcoming presidential election will effectively be a one-on-one fight between conservatives and liberals rooting for their respective candidates with independents deciding the fate of the race.

   Ko Sung-guk, a political analyst, said the fight will be decided by who is able to appeal more to people in the middle and those with weak political affiliations. Others such as Humanistas Book head and liberal political critic Park Sang-hon said both the ruling and opposition parties need to solidify their support base to have a chance of winning the presidency.