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2017 will go down as campaign in which debates mattered

NEWS ANALYSIS
May 04,2017
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[YONHAP]
The presidential election of 2017 is unique in a myriad of ways - unavoidably as it follows the first removal of a Korean president after impeachment.

In terms of campaigning alone, it is likely to go down in history as the election in which six presidential debates were the deciding factor in which candidates the voters liked - or were repelled by.

Since the custom began in the 1992 campaign, the debates among presidential candidates have always been important, but usually to strengthen support bases rather than chipping away at rivals’ supporters.

The 2017 election cycle has shown that candidates can lose big chunks of their bases if they stumble badly in debates telecast live to the nation.

This was particularly true of People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, the former software tycoon and academic who was neck-and-neck with frontrunner Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party (DP) before the first debate on April 13.

The former businessman enjoyed a fast rise in his approval rating through mid-April, which peaked at 37 percent, just 3 percentage points shy of Moon’s, according to pollster Gallup Korea. That gap was within the margin of error.

After the sixth debate was over three weeks later, Ahn’s approval rating dropped 17 points to 20 percent, far behind Moon’s 38 percent, according to Gallup’s latest poll released Wednesday. “There was a wide gap between Ahn’s image as a reform-minded politician and what he actually presented during the debates because he failed to properly deliver his policy platforms in real time,” said a political analyst, who asked for anonymity. “In terms of content, he came across as a candidate who did not fully understand even his own agenda.”

Ahn is now competing with conservative Liberty Korea Party’s Hong Joon-pyo for second place.

A two-horse race between Moon and Ahn before the debates changed into one in which Moon is trailed by Hong and Ahn with a nearly 20 percent gap.

The snap election is being held seven months earlier than originally scheduled because of the removal of former president Park Geun-hye. That led to a much shorter campaign period than ever before - and a greater need for the candidates to look competent and articulate at the debates. The sixth debate garnered a viewer rating of 35.9 percent, higher than debates in previous elections.

The 2017 debates touched upon a bewildering variety of issues: North Korea, national security, jobs, welfare, revitalizing the economy and raising low birth rates. For the first time since the live debate format was introduced in 1992, the issue of homosexuality was addressed.

Reflecting on growing tension on the peninsula, the very first question of the six debates was how the candidates would respond if Washington were about to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. The five candidates all said they would work strenuously diplomatically to prevent a military conflict. The unified response underscored the common worry that a pre-emptive strike on the North by the U.S. could lead to full-fledged combat, a resumption of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Continuing the focus on North Korea, frontrunner Moon came under heavy fire from two conservative candidates - Hong and the Bareun Party’s Yoo Seong-min - for his refusal to brand North Korea the “primary enemy state” of South Korea. The two conservative candidates were plainly trying to rally security-conscious conservatives to their sides while accusing Moon of being pro-Pyongyang.

Liberty Korea Party candidate Hong was hammered during the third debate for his alleged complicity in a sexual assault case four decades ago. He had admitted in a memoir to helping a friend buy a supposed aphrodisiac to slip in a woman’s drink. Sim, Ahn and Yoo demanded Hong withdraw his candidacy. Ahn refused to look at Hong during the debate.

Another surprise came during the fourth debate when the issue of homosexuality was brought up by Hong, who bluntly asked Moon if he endorsed homosexuality. Moon’s reply that he “does not like homosexuality” and was “against it” drew a backlash from liberal voters, including his own supporters, especially in light of Moon’s past as a former human rights lawyer.

Progressive Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jeung weighed in on the topic, expressing outright support for “the rights of sexual minorities” that earned her praise on social media.

“Homosexuality is not a matter of support or dissent because it is a matter of one’s identity,” said Sim, the only female candidate.

“I am heterosexual. But I am a firm in my belief that the rights and freedoms of a sexual minority should be respected. That is what a democratic nation is supposed to do.”

Sim’s approval rating rose to 8 percent from 3 percent three weeks ago, according to Gallup Korea.

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