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(News Focus) Uncertainty dominates presidential race; hopefuls vie to win over moderates
By Lee Joon-seung
SEOUL, Oct. 29 (Yonhap) -- Uncertainty dominates South Korea's presidential election landscape as hopefuls are locked in a war of words over modern historical perspectives, the liberal camp running a single candidate and the need to woo moderates in their 40s, who will likely determine the outcome of the Dec. 19 poll.

   Political pundits said Monday that with just over 50 days to go before voters pick the country's next chief executive, candidates and parties will have to tackle controversies surrounding the legacies of former presidents, "sovereignty" issues surrounding the de facto sea border between the two Koreas and signs of shifting support from traditional strongholds.

   For the two liberal candidates, there is also the pressing need to agree on a single candidacy that could either give the opposition an edge in the upcoming election, or effectively hand over victory to ruling Saenuri Party contender Park Geun-hye.

   "All sides acknowledge that the impact a single liberal candidate will have on the election is great, and this will force candidates to iron out outstanding differences as soon as possible," said a political observer.

   Candidate Moon Jae-in for the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) and independent hopeful Ahn Cheol-soo are widely expected to merge before Nov. 25-26, when all presidential contenders must formally register with the National Election Commission.

   The two, however, have yet to see eye-to-eye on who is best qualified, with Moon emphasizing that a presidential candidate needs to have the backing of a political party to govern, while Ahn has countered that "a people's candidate" better reflects the spirit of the times.


Saenuri has maintained that if the liberals unify simply for the sake of taking over power, it will be nothing more than old-fashioned political collusion.

   "Such a move will not impress the people and backfire," claimed party spokesman Lee Cheol-woo. Others in the party have said that if Moon and Ahn agree to field just one candidate, they could pose a stiff challenge to Park.

   Saenuri and DUP candidates, in addition, will have to cope with the thorny legacies from previous administrations.

   Park, the 60-year-old daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, said the 1961 military coup that brought her father to power and other abuses of power under his 18-year rule, all delayed South Korea's political development and hurt the value of its Constitution. Despite such efforts, she has still not been able to fully set aside her father's political baggage such as the controversy surrounding the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation.

   The foundation created by President Park in 1962 has been attacked as "stolen property" by the opposition and has affected the Saenuri candidate's ability to appeal to moderates.

   For Moon, who was the chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, he has to fend off allegations that the late chief executive tried to nullify the Northern Limit Line during the 2007 summit meeting with his North Korean counterpart.

   Saenuri has also said that Moon needs to answer questions about claims that before Roh stepped down from office in early 2008, he ordered the destruction of confidential files that is in direct violation of existing laws.

   Aside from the single candidacy and past issues, contenders are gearing up to attack rivals for misconduct and activities that were illegal or questionable.

   Moon is expected to be called upon to cope with negative views held by the public on the performance of Roh's administration.

   The 59-year-old human rights lawyer turned politician may moreover be confronted with calls to explain allegations of favoritism for the hiring of his son by a state-run institute in late 2006 when he was still one of the most influential aides at the presidential office.

   For Ahn, the founder of AhnLab, the country's largest anti-virus software company, Saenuri may focus its attacks on "shady" real estate transactions, accumulation of his wealth and suspicions that he asked for a favor to get his wife hired as a professor at two universities in the country.

   Political watchers added that critics may dig up more information on his military service, tax records and undisclosed information of violations of the law.

   Because Ahn is well respected for his clean image discovering problems in his past may hurt him more than most politicians. Attacks may be centered on his utter lack of experience in serving the public.

   Besides this, Park, a five-term lawmaker, is expected to redouble her efforts to hold onto voters from Busan and South Gyeongsang Province, which have been the bastion of support for conservatives in past elections.

   "In the past, conservative candidates won 70 percent of votes cast in the two regions, but the latest polls showed Park's rating hovering at around just 50 percent with numbers for Moon and Ahn reaching as high as 40 percent," a local pollster said.


On the other hand, Moon and Ahn, who have the support of liberals and the Jeolla region in the southwestern part of the country, will have to deal with the possibility that Park may be able to win up to 20 percent of votes cast in their own regional strongholds.

   In the past, most conservatives won very few votes with their approval ratings remaining in the single digits.

   Meanwhile, most political observers and party officials said that winning the support of moderates and voters in their 40s will decide this year's election.

   Voters over 50 that make up 15.7 million people and have consistently leaned toward Park, while those in their 20s-30s account for 15.6 million people have preferred liberal candidates.

   According to local pollster Research & Research, Saenuri's popularity among people in their 50s and 60s soared to a solid mid-60 percent range, compared to the 20 percent range for both Moon and Ahn.

   For the younger generation, Park's support is stuck in the low to mid-30 percent levels, compared to 50-60 percent ratings for the two liberal candidates.

   The Seoul-based survey company said for those in their 40s that make up 22 percent of eligible voters, polls have shown more fluctuations, indicating that there are more moderates in this age group.

   "Before the controversy over her father's legacy, and while she was calling for full-fledged national unity, Park scored high among people in their 40s but has since lost some ground," a pollster said.

   It said Park got 43.3 percent of support among 40-something voters versus 43.8 percent for Moon, while she narrowed the gap with Ahn to 7.4 percentage points by gaining the support of 41.9 percent of all voters to Ahn's 49.3 percent.


Other factors that could affect the presidential elections are the four minor candidates from the two progressive parties and two independents from the moderate and conservative sides.

   Combined support for Lee Jung-hee from the minor Unified Progressive Party, Sim Sang-jeung of the Progressive Justice Party, Lee Kun-k and Kang Ji-won stood at 1.6 percent in a poll carried out by RealMeter on Friday and Saturday.

   "The numbers are not high, but because this year's race is expected to be decided by a margin of 1-2 percent, these minor candidates may play a crucial role in the election," said company President Lee Taek-soo.