4 variables that could decide who becomes S. Korea’s next president

Posted on : 2022-02-16 16:45 KST Modified on : 2022-02-16 16:45 KST
With voters going to the ballot box in just 3 weeks, who will come out victorious remains unclear
Candidates for this year’s presidential election, from left to right: Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party, Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party, and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party. (graphic by Baek Ji-suk)
Candidates for this year’s presidential election, from left to right: Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party, Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party, and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party. (graphic by Baek Ji-suk)

Tuesday marked the official start of candidates’ campaigns for president, but with a tight two-way race shaping up between Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party, each candidate is doing what they can to ensure they’re the one who makes it to the Blue House.

As the two candidates compete fiercely within the margin of error in various polls, attention is focusing on the main variables that could shake things up in the three weeks until the election.

While Ahn Cheol-soo’s proposal to merge campaigns with Yoon is drawing notice, all of the presidential hopefuls are concentrating their efforts into mobilizing their support base, pushing for higher voter turnout, and going on the offensive.

① Will the campaign merger between Ahn and Yoon pan out?

The biggest variable remains whether Yoon and Ahn decide to merge their respective campaigns. A number of polls conducted up to now have shown that if the two candidates do indeed join forces, the opposition could best Lee Jae-myung and the ruling party by a margin of 10 points.

The People Power Party has repeatedly expressed its desire to unite Yoon’s campaign with that of Ahn since a victory without this kind of merger would be much more difficult to guarantee. However, talks about the potential merger have stalled after the People Power Party demanded Ahn make concessions.

Ahn put pressure on Yoon Tuesday by calling on him to disclose “as soon as possible” his decision on a merger using opinion polls — Ahn’s preferred method for choosing who will head the opposition’s ticket in the event of a merger.

But Yoon has yet to budge. Political insiders predict that trends in the two candidates’ approval ratings as the election draws nearer will determine whether the merge camps, and if so, when.

Yoon Tae-gon, head of political analysis for political think tank The Moa, predicted, "Interest in a merger with Ahn will rise commensurately with dips in Yoon’s poll numbers.”

Meanwhile, amidst all the uncertainty and nerves plaguing the two camps, the Democratic Party seems to be pushing for Ahn to stay in the race, and appears to be leaving door open to the possibility of a “unity government” that would include Ahn.

An official from the Democratic Party’s election committee said, “If Ahn chooses not to go over to the People Power Party and instead runs as an independent candidate, then he is sending a message that he could become a part of a unity government.”

The Democrats appear to have calculated that their best chance at the Blue House will come by keeping Ahn in the race as a spoiler to Yoon.

“Even if the Democratic Party says it’s only 1%, it should not close the possibility of joining forces with Ahn,” says Park Sang-byung, a visiting professor at Inha University.

② Is there such a thing as “shy” Lee Jae-myung supporters?

Opinions between the two parties also seem to be divided on another issue, namely the existence of so-called “shy” Lee Jae-myung supporters — those who reportedly don’t publicly express their support for Lee given the many rumors and controversies surrounding him.

With President Moon Jae-in’s current approval rating exceeding that of Lee by nearly 10 percentage points, both parties are turning their focus to those voters who support Moon but not Lee.

The Democratic Party believes that picking up these hidden votes could determine the outcome of the election. Saying that when in the ballot box, the “shy” voters will ultimately cast their vote for Lee, the Democrats are targeting their efforts on ensuring that these silent supports show up to the polls on March 9.

“Some 3%-4% of Honam supporters are considered ‘shy’ progressives,” an official from the Democratic Party’s election committee told the Hankyoreh, referencing the southwest region of Korea long known as a liberal bastion. “Lee’s task is to show these people that he can win and to make sure they make it to the ballot box.”

“It’s true that among Honam and pro-Moon supporters, some feel they just can’t vote for Lee,” shared another official with the Democratic Party’s election camp. “But they are showing signs of coming together after Yoon’s remarks about conducting a ‘retaliatory investigation’ into the current government.”

On the other hand, there are also those who say such a “shy” Lee Jae-myung voting bloc doesn’t exist.

“There is no such thing,” one senior official with the Democratic Party’s election committee commented, saying that the matter mostly came down to undecided voters.

The People Power Party fears that a last-minute rallying together of Democratic Party supporters may take away Yoon’s already razor-thin edge over Lee.

“We’re keeping an eye on the effects of Yoon recently saying he would ‘investigate corruption,” an official with the People Power Party told the Hankyoreh. “We could win over voters who supported President Moon but haven’t been open to Lee Jae-myung.”

③ Which age groups will show up to the polls?

With generational politics at play in this year’s election, a key variable that may sway the election will be how many of the core voting blocs actually show up to vote on March 9.

The conservative People Power Party has been heavily engaged in trying to get those in their 20s and 30s to the ballot box, as their votes are seen as the deciding votes that could determine who comes out victorious.

In fact, Yoon’s party plans on setting up a separate youth campaign group aimed at this specific demographic. Participatory campaigns, which were well-received in the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections last year, will also be mobilized to encourage young people to participate in the voting process.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party is focused more on voters in their 40s and 50s, who form a key part of their support base.

“I think the economically active population between the ages of 35 and early 60s is advantageous for the Democratic Party,” a key official from the Democratic Party said. “Throughout this election process, we must make sure that these people show up to vote.”

The Democratic Party is also continuing its quest to gain support from younger voters.

Another official from the Democratic Party’s election committee said, “Video clips like the TV commercial released today by Lee that’s brief and genuine will encourage voters to cast their ballots.” The official also said, “[The Democratic Party] also needs to make use of a marketing strategy that says the unpredictable Yoon is not the way to go.”

④ Candidates go negative as the clock ticks down

The two major parties’ mudslinging offensive against each other is projected to sway the tides of the election in the days leading up to it. With the commencement of its official campaign, the Democratic Party has put forth a line of attack titled “Four reasons why Yoon Suk-yeol is unfit to be president,” forewarning a large-scale offensive against its competitor.

In its internal document released Tuesday, the Democratic Party listed four of Yoon’s weak points that it should highlight in its campaign: incompetence and ignorance; shamanism; controversies surrounding himself, his wife, and his mother-in-law; and avowal of political retaliation. The document also contained specific slogans Democratic Party campaigners should use, such as: “Yoon Suk-yeol has looked down on regular citizens his whole life on the high horse of being a prosecutor”; “A mixed liquor addict should not be in charge of state affairs”; and “Candidate Yoon’s wife Kim Keon-hee is ‘the queen of fabrication.’”

Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Eui-kyeom also raised the allegation that the so-called Monk Geonjin, a close associate of Yoon and his wife Kim, conducted a shamanic ceremony involving the skinning of a live cow, during which one of the lotus lanterns adorning the event had Yoon and Kim’s names written on it.

Meanwhile, the People Power Party also continued with its offensive against Lee, such as by releasing commentaries touching on allegations that Lee misappropriated company credit cards during his tenure as mayor of Seongnam and governor of Gyeonggi Province; allegations of abuses of power by his wife Kim Hye-kyung; the Daejang neighborhood development scandal; and allegations that Lee received a bribe in the form of donations to Seongnam’s football club.

Choi Chang-ryeol, a professor at Yong In University said, “[The candidates] will use campaign strategies that highlight the liabilities posed by their competitor’s partner [. . .] because policies that reflect the zeitgeist or differences in metadiscourse cannot be found in the current election.”

By Song Chae Kyung-hwa and Kim Mi-na, staff reporters

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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