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Conservatives seek new leader

Approval for liberal opposition candidates is over twice as much
Mar 03,2017
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Conservative voters seem increasingly lost in this year’s presidential election, which could likely be held in less than three months, pending the Constitutional Court’s ruling on whether President Park Geun-hye should be forced out of office.

In the latest poll conducted by Realmeter, all combined approval ratings of the three presidential hopefuls touting conservative values fall far short of that of frontrunner Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party by a difference of about 15 percentage points. The poll surveyed 1,008 adults nationwide on Monday and Tuesday with a margin of error plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The three conservative contenders are Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is acting president, Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party and South Gyeongsang Governor Hong Joon-pyo.

While the interim head of state, Park’s appointee, has emerged as a potential candidate of the ruling Liberty Korea Party and a top pick of diehard Park supporters and those on the far-right, it remains to be seen whether he will throw his hat into the ring as an LKP nominee.

In the Realmeter poll, Hwang came in second with 14.6 percent approval, narrowly beating South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung of the DP by 0.1 percent.

Hwang taking second place seems a boost for his presidential ambition, given that he has not even declared his bid for president nor signaled his intention to do so.

Sensing Hwang’s popularity among party members, LKP Chairman Chung Woo-taik on Thursday pressed the acting president to declare his bid sooner rather than later.

“If he intends to run, it is better for him to declare his bid before the court’s ruling on an impeachment motion so he could have more political impact,” said the party chief.

Governor Hong has also recently emerged as the LKP’s other presidential hope after he was acquitted last month by an appellate court of a bribery charge in a high-profile scandal involving late businessman Sung Wan-jong. Hong came in sixth with 3.5 percent support, the highest approval among LKP hopefuls, not including Hwang as he is not affiliated with LKP so long as he is acting president.

But questions still loom as to whether Hwang, who built his career rounding up suspected pro-North Korea figures as a prosecutor, could expand his support base beyond ardent conservatives and President Park’s supporters.

In the poll, only 37.4 percent of those who identify as conservatives said they support the acting national leader.

The combined approval of the three conservative politicians is only 20.8 percent, whereas the combined approval of the three DP runners - Moon, An and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung - stands at 58.7 percent.

Seizing on an opportunity to blame the conservative LKP and Bareun Party, which was launched in January by LKP defectors, the DP has defined the 2017 presidential election as a judgment call for the Park Geun-hye government, whose fate is hanging in the balance pending the court’s verdict, tilting the race in favor of the liberal opposition bloc.

At one point, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was widely hoped by conservatives to be an alternative to represent the conservative bloc and sustain their hold on power. But the fanfare ended less than a month after Ban decided not to run.

Now the question is whether the conservative votes will coalesce to form a united stance following the Constitutional Court’s ruling on whether to remove Park from office, which if it chooses to do so, will be the first time in Korean history.

Park’s removal from power could make her supporters back a candidate they find conservative enough - whether it be Hwang, Yoo or Hong - or it could lead them to abstain from voting in the election, which must be held within 60 days of Park’s removal.

“Though pro-Park supporters now say they would disavow the court’s ruling (if it takes Park out of office), they will accept the decision and the country will enter a full-fledged campaign mode,” Park Won-ho, professor of political science at Seoul National University, told the JoongAng Ilbo.

The professor said with no appealing conservative candidates to represent the bloc an increased number of those to the right of the spectrum could opt to not take part in the voting.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]