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Who will stop Moon?

Odds-on favorite for presidency readies for main game

With five weeks to go to the May 9 election, the race for South Korean presidency is shaping up to be, in essence, a contest to stop Moon Jae-in, the clear front-runner from the liberal camp.

Moon, topping polls with a 30-40 percent support rating for the past 13 consecutive weeks, received a further boost to his momentum Monday, clinching the presidential ticket of the Democratic Party of Korea.

With that, the 64-year-old former human rights lawyer and friend of the late liberal icon President Roh Moo-hyun is clearly the favorite to win, unless conservative or centrist figures manage to consolidate behind a single anti-Moon candidate.

Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party of Korea (Yonhap)
Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party of Korea (Yonhap)

“Most likely to win”

According to a Realmeter poll released Monday, Moon has a formidable lead over all challengers, garnering 34.9 percent in support rating.

Centrist runner-up Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party has seen a major upswing in popularity over the past week, but support for him is still at around half that of Moon, at 18.7 percent.

In the survey, which was conducted before the liberal party finalized the winner of its presidential primaries, Moon’s in-party rivals -- South Chungcheong Province Gov. An Hee-jung and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung -- together garnered 22 percent in support ratings.

Assuming that each candidate of the country’s five political parties makes it to the finish line, Moon is projected to win with 43 percent of the vote, followed by Ahn with 22.7 percent and Hong Joon-pyo of the main conservative Liberty Korea Party with 10.2 percent.

Whether matched up with a single unified challenger or two, Moon is predicted to prevail, except in just one poll that came out Monday.

In the survey conducted by the Opinion on 1,000 citizens, Ahn was projected to win against Moon by 43.6-36.4 in a two-way match.

Even voters, who do not support Moon, think the liberal candidate is most likely to win, surveys show.

In a poll, conducted by the Korea Society Opinion Institution, 68.1 percent of the respondents acknowledged the notion.

For Moon, this prevailing expectation on his victory could serve as a double-edged sword, experts said.

“When there is a clear front-runner, voters tend to lose interest in the race, resulting in a low turnout. Voter participation could also be affected by the election taking place in between holidays, although it remains to be seen whether these factors play out to Moon’s disadvantage,” a political observer said on condition of anonymity.

Anti-Moon coalition?

Political pundits view this year’s election taking on “an uneven playing field” leaning to the liberals, in the wake of the ouster of conservative President Park Geun-hye who is now under arrest for corruption involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil.

Yet, Moon, the liberal standard-bearer of the 2012 presidential race who lost to Park in a 48:52 defeat, has faced some challenges.

In his own party, he fought against some strong contenders: South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung, a moderate liberal, and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung, a sharp-tongued politician.

Before the primary, Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was considered a strong challenger to Moon, although his campaign blew over in 20 days. Months before Ban finished his UN job and came back to his home country on Jan. 12, he stood as a front-runner in the list of potential presidential candidates in local polls, even beating the sturdy Moon.

Ban, only three weeks after joining local politics, made a surprise announcement renouncing his bid in the presidency on Feb. 1.

Now, with most political parties having finalized their presidential candidate, Ahn of the People’s Party is emerging as a candidate with the best chance at stopping Moon.

All eyes are on the possible consolidation of candidacies between two conservative candidates -- Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party and Yoo Seung-min of the splinter Bareun Party -- or a broader conservative-centrist coalition against the liberal camp.

As with any candidacy consolidation of the past, the path for an anti-Moon solidarity would certainly be fraught with perils. Understandably, local pundits are very cautious to predict who will triumph in the end.

At least one thing seems to be clear. In the end, it will all come down to one question: Is it Moon or not Moon?

“Moon does have a large group of staunch supporters, but he also has strong dissenters,” said Yoon Pyeong-joong, a professor of political philosophy at Hanshin University.

“The outcome is not easy to forecast, considering the race could unleash unpredictable events as it heats up.”

By Jo He-rim(herim@heraldcorp.com)

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