A very close contest is occurring between the ruling and opposition groups ahead of the presidential election scheduled for December 19. A series of public polls have shown that neither is superior to the other in terms of support. Approximately 37% of voters are giving unwavering support to the ruling New Frontier Party’s candidate Park Geun-hye, whereas 38% are teetering between the Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in and independent Ahn Chul-soo. The remaining 25% of the electorate are swing voters or those uninterested in politics. In simulated elections, Park has led the other two by 10 to 15 percentage points but consistently fallen behind them by at least 10 percentage points when they are combined. This is because the majority of floating voters are in favor of Ahn for now. However, there is no guarantee that they will root for him until the last moment.
Under such circumstances, political experts are saying that who will be the united opposition candidate will become one of the most crucial factors in the race. Of course, both Ahn and Moon may take their own lines until the end, yet the consensus is that the ruling party will gain the upper hand in that case, something the other two are very well aware of. They also know that their voices for political change will further resonate once they join forces.
Those in the opposition camps regard it as a fait accompli that a single candidacy agreement with lead to election victory. A political pundit agreed, saying, “A sole candidate will rally the group of voters who yearn for regime change, which is estimated at some 55% of the total.”
“A single candidate of the opposition would have a 60% chance to win if candidate unification was made in a manner persuasive to the public,” said Korea University professor Lee Nae-young. Director Lee Chul-hee from the Doomoon Political Strategy Research Institute added, “If the sole candidate was Ahn Chul-soo, the chance of winning would be between 70% and 80%. The percentage would be around 60% to 70% if it was Moon Jae-in.”
However, some doubt that candidate unification will make such a powerful factor. Research & Research Director Bae Jong-chan stated, “Let’s look back at 2002. At polls, former President Roh Moo-hyun led the Grand National Party’s Lee Hoi-chang by more than 10 percentage points thanks to the convention effect, but the figure fell to just 2.3 percentage points in the end.” Dankook University professor Ka Sang-joon and Yoon Hee-woong, who heads the Research and Analysis Office of the Korea Society Opinion Institute, echoed this, stating “It would be a neck-and-neck race at best for the opposition even if candidate unification turned out well enough.” What they mean is that the convention effect will dwindle as the election draws closer and conservative voters gather forces.
Another opinion is that the effect of such unification will differ depending on who becomes the finalist. “If Moon Jae-in became the sole candidate and he fails to come up with policies to attract middle-of-the-roaders, at least some of the centrists supporting Ahn Chul-soo would break away,” remarked Myongji University professor Shin Yool.
Director Lee of the Doomoon Institute, pointed out, “Candidate unification would backfire if it failed to gain national consensus.” Myongji University professor Kim Hyung-joon continued, stating, “If the process of unification entailed mudslinging and personal insults, people would believe that the two candidates are not so different from established politicians, which would turn to Park Geun-hye’s advantage.”
Who Is More Likely to Be the Sole Candidate?
According to most political insiders, it is currently impossible to predict who will become the sole candidate of the opposition: “Although Ahn is found to be more competitive in opinion polls, it is believed that Moon will take the lead in the event of the selection being made by voting because Moon is enjoying more stability from the party. In short, it is unpredictable because the rules of the game have not been determined yet.”
Meanwhile, professor Shin Yool said that the odds are against Moon. “Voters in South and North Jeolla Provinces are likely to turn their backs on Moon as he hired pro-Roh Moo-hyun figures as his secretarial staff and included Moon Sung-geun in his camp,” he said, “With the situation as it is, Ahn is more likely to become the single candidate.”
Who Will Be More Competitive between Ahn Chul-soo and Moon Jae-in as the Single Candidate?
The majority opinion is that Ahn rather than Moon will be more competitive against Park. This is because Ahn, as a single candidate, can win over most of those endorsing Moon. On the contrary, some of the backers of Ahn Chul-soo are expected to withdraw their support if Moon Jae-in is chosen to represent.
Research & Research Director Bae Jong-chan commented, “Ahn has a wide political spectrum and thus can win over the centrist groupm which accounts for about 25% of the electorate.” Professor Kim Hyung-joon added, “Recent public polls show that approximately 20% of Ahn’s supporters will secede if Moon is chosen.”
However, according to Kyunghee University professor Yoon Sung-i, those in Jeolla Provinces are likely to turn towards Moon Jae-in despite Ahn Chul-soo enjoying a lead based on their endorsement. Duksung Women’s University professor Jo Jin-man agreed, saying, “Voters advocating Moon are absolutely opposed to the ruling faction and therefore Moon Jae-in seems to be the more viable option for the opposition.”
Public Support for the DUP and Independent Candidates
Gallup Korea, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and Research & Research, announced the results of their opinion polls on October 5, showing that those opposed to the ruling party prefer the Democratic United Party candidate.
In Gallup Korea’s polls, Ahn lead against Moon between September 19 and 21 (45% Vs 40%) and September 24 and 26 (44% Vs 42%). However, they tied between September 26 and 28 (42% Vs 42%) and Moon began to pull ahead between October 4 and 5 (41% Vs 48%). Moon was also in the lead in Research & Research’s poll between October 2 and 4 (38.8% Vs 42.1%).
In Gallup Korea’s opinion surveys in Jeolla Provinces, which are expected to have the greatest influence on candidate unification, Moon also succeeded in overtaking Ahn in the first week of October -- The percentages were 42% Vs 51% between September 24 and 26 and 45% Vs 42% between October 4 and 5. In the meantime, Moon beat Ahn and jumped to the second spot in some polls that assumed a three-candidate election. For example, Park recorded an approval rating of 39.6% between an October 3 and 4 survey conducted by SBS and TNS, while Moon and Ahn recorded 23.1% and 22.3%, respectively.
DUP Putting Pressure on Ahn to Take the Initiative in the Race
Needless to say, the DUP candidate is striving to take the initiative in his contest with Ahn. He made a pick-off throw on October 11 by mentioning inter-party, not inter-candidate, competition. Since then, he has proposed trilateral talks for economic democratization, organization of a political reform committee between Ahn and himself, and even suggested Ahn Chul-soo join the DUP. “My competition with independent Ahn is inevitable until candidate unification,” he said at the election campaign committee meeting on October 15, “He has his own stance as an independent candidate and I have mine as a party candidate.”
According to the DUP’s analysis, Ahn’s approval rating has been falling since he revealed his will to remain an independent candidate and DUP lawmaker Song Ho-chang decided to join Ahn although the rating had jumped more than a little bit due to his mentioning of the political reform issue earlier last week. In order to maintain his advantageous position in the future, Moon is continuing to raise the candidate unification issue even though he needs it.
For Moon Jae-in, Ahn’s adherence to independent candidacy and the lawmaker’s defection may result in the breakaway of DUP supporters who have backed Ahn Chul-soo as a future single candidate. It means that Moon has to keep raising the issue if he is going to be able to attract them to his side.
Furthermore, the DUP believes its sharp conflicts with the ruling party over matters such as behind-the-curtain conversations between Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il and the Chungo Association’s sale of its shares in MBC will solidify the two-way race between Moon and Park, thus further pushing out Ahn Chul-soo.
Ahn Mentioning Coalition Instead of Candidate Unification
Although the DUP is maintaining its aggressive stance, Ahn has responded by arguing that now is the time for each candidate to do his or her utmost for new politics, adding it is undesirable for Moon to put pressure on him by mentioning candidate unification and joining the opposition party.
Ahn’s spokesperson, Jung Youn-soon, said on October 15, “We can’t say that there is a deadline regarding candidate unification,” adding, “It is a consuming debate, that of who does politics better between a party and independent candidate and it is inappropriate to set the goal of candidate unification.” Kim Sung-shik, who is heading the campaign committee under Ahn, added, “Moon’s mentioning of Ahn joining the DUP is wrong by any means and it seems to me that the party is now playing partisan politics. I’d also like to say that the right choice of words is coalition or alliance, not unification.”
The words coalition and alliance mean cooperation between two sides on equal terms. By saying so, the campaign committee chair made a counterargument against the DUP, which he thinks is trying to strangle Ahn by branding him an independent candidate with limitations in terms of statecraft. His dissatisfaction is that the DUP is regarding Ahn and his side not as a partner of solidarity but an object to be absorbed.
It is in this very vein that Ahn is not expected to join the DUP even if he becomes the sole candidate. Though things may differ depending on when unification occurs and how approval ratings change in the future, Ahn is still concerned about being trapped in the framework of being a DUP candidate when he joins the party. If this happens, centrists in favor of Ahn may stop endorsing him, with his efforts to differentiate himself from the other two ultimately going up in smoke. Well aware of this, Ahn is planning to distance himself from established politicians while continuing to focus on policy contests.
The candidate unification between Moon and Ahn is one of the hottest issues in the upcoming presidential election, yet it cannot be said for sure that it will come to pass. Some on Ahn’s side predict that it will take place, but they only say this “off the record”. Although the majority opinion is in favor of a single candidate with both Ahn and Moon not standing a chance against Park in a three-way competition, basic-level discussions are still not underway regarding the method and time of any such unification.