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Former presidential rivals at helm of their party

Nearly six months after the May presidential election, the fortunes of its five main candidates have seen some twists and turns.

But three of them are now finding themselves back in a familiar race against one another, this time as leaders of their respective parties.

With Rep. Yoo Seong-min elected Monday to helm the Bareun Party, the three leaders -- Yoo, Hong Joon-pyo of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor People’s Party -- will vie to gain a foothold at the National Assembly as opposition leaders and to confront the ruling liberal party. 

Ahn Cheol-soo (left), Hong Joon-pyo, Yoo Seong-min (Yonhap)
Ahn Cheol-soo (left), Hong Joon-pyo, Yoo Seong-min (Yonhap)

From the way things look now, Hong, who finished second in the election after President Moon Jae-in, appears to be in better shape than the other two.

The firebrand politician was a non-mainstreamer in his Liberty Korea Party before the poll, but the better-than-expected 23 percent finish in the election boosted his political clout.

Leading the Liberty Korea Party since July, Hong is pushing his reform plans, albeit slowly and with difficulty, recently expelling the disgraced former party head and former President Park Geun-hye from the party.

In the latest poll by Realmeter on Monday, the main opposition party stood at second place among the five major political parties, posting 18.6 percent of support among 2,533 respondents.

Rep. Yoo, the Bareun Party leader who landed fourth in the presidential election, has never strayed from his campaign motto -- true conservatism -- but the past six months have proven that it is not an easy task.

Yoo’s party started with 33 lawmakers, including himself, who defected from the Liberty Korea Party in December. At the time, they sought to cut ties with old and corrupted politics and vowed to pursue the “true values” of conservatism, in the wake of the massive corruption scandal that led to the ouster of former President Park.

Before the election, 13 lawmakers of the 33 left the party. Since then, the party has continued to tread a tight rope. It lost its parliamentary negotiation bloc status after a second round of mass defection on Nov. 8, and now holds 11 seats at the National Assembly. At least 20 is required to maintain the negotiating group status.

The new leader now has the daunting task of preventing further defections and to maintain its survival at the National Assembly. He is pushing for a broad centrist-conservative alliance -- mainly with the People’s Party.

Meanwhile, People’s Party Chairman Ahn appears to be on an uphill battle, as his party is struggling to gain support from the public. He was once considered a match against incumbent President Moon Jae-in during the electioneering period, but was beaten by conservative leader Hong, placing third in the election with 21.4 percent of votes. While he seeks to advocate “radical centrist” policies, his direction is often questioned due to ambiguity.

The party lost supporters as it went through a series of scandals including one in which several of its members were found to have fabricated evidence to raise suspicions against the son of its rival candidate Moon during the presidential election. The minor opposition currently ranks last in the poll with 5.3 percent of support.

Previously, the presidential candidate and the chairwoman of the far-left Justice Party, Rep. Sim Sang-jeung had contributed much to the higher-than-usual rate of support from the public, which stood at 5.8 percent in Monday’s poll. She resigned from the post in July and Rep. Lee Jeong-mi now leads the party that has six parliamentary seats.

The election winner President Moon and his governing Democratic Party of Korea are enjoying an unseen level of popularity from the public. President Moon’s popularity appears to be much higher than the figure he earned as a candidate, which was 41.1 percent of the national vote cast. In the latest poll, he garnered 70.1 percent of approval rate, while the ruling Democratic Party topped the list of political parties with 48.2 percent.

By Jo He-rim (