SEOUL: With less than a week to go until the much-anticipated presidential election in South Korea, the race to lead Asia’s fourth-largest economy is heating up.
Although the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea’s candidate Moon Jae-in appears most likely to be the next resident of the presidential Blue House with 42.2 per cent of support in the latest Realmeter poll released Wednesday (May 3), the race is not yet over.
Two candidates with more conservative leanings – Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party and ultra-conservative Liberty Party of Korea’s Hong Joon-pyo stand tied at approximately 18 per cent, with the latter’s support rising.
Experts say there are still variables, like “shy conservatives” who account for almost all the swing voters, and those in their 50s who account for almost 20 per cent of the electorate and have displayed a clear conservative tendency in previous elections.
These could significantly tip the scale in the final stretch leading up to the May 9 election.
Ahead of the voting day, here’s a look at the country’s three leading candidates and their credentials:
MOON JAE-IN, 64, DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF KOREA
Front-runner Moon Jae-in has been leading the polls for months, following the ousting of former President Park Geun-hye.
A former human rights lawyer, the 64-year-old served as the chief of staff for the late President Roh Moo-hyun from 2003 to 2008, whom many liberal voters idolise. In 2012, Moon ran in the presidential race against South Korea's then conservative princess Park Geun-hye, whom he lost to by a narrow margin.
Since then, his political views and credentials have become well-known to voters and he has projected himself as a champion of democracy and an advocate of a fair and just society.
His campaign slogan this time around is: “A reliable president to build a decent nation".
There is strong speculation that he may soften South Korea’s policy toward North Korea through engagement with Pyongyang and possibly delay the deployment of the US anti-missile defence system that has recently been put in place, much to the unhappiness of China.
Such an approach may clash with US interests in the region.
President Trump has pressed China to do more to rein in the North and warned that the US may have to deal with the communist state on its own, if necessary.
Domestically, Moon has vowed to get tough on corporate criminals and break up cosy ties between big businesses and the government.
Moon's key supporters are the liberal-minded, as well as relatively younger voters aged under 50. He is also the favourite of white-collar voters.
As the electorate is clearly leaning to the left this time around following the stunning fall from grace of Park and her conservative administration, Moon is widely tipped to be the next president.
Yet, political watchers point out that his affiliation with the late president Roh, a highly divisive figure who committed suicide amid a corruption probe, could hinder his rise. Some also argue that he is too idealistic on security perspectives and North Korea.
AHN CHEOL-SOO, 55, PEOPLE’S PARTY
Until he announced his bid for presidency, 55-year-old Ahn Cheol-soo was better known as a medical doctor-turned software mogul and celebrity mentor for the youth.
He only formed the People’s Party in February, after breaking off from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, to offer a more centrist alternative.
In 2012, he almost ran against Park in the presidential race, but dropped out to back his current opponent Moon who was ultimately unsuccessful in his bid. This year, he promised voters to create a nation where, as his slogan says, "the people always win".
Ahn has backed the US-led anti-missile system and approved of international sanctions on North Korea. However, he does share some similar views to Moon in that he supports dialogue with Pyongyang.
His main supporters are those in their 50s and over, the self-employed, as well as stay-at home voters with a conservative inclination.
Among Ahn's strengths is his unique centrist position, which can appeal to swing voters who do not want to support the conservative camp, nor Moon of the main liberal party. However, his "centrist" stance has also worked against him in a time when the nation is more polarized than ever.
Another weakness of Ahn’s is that he has no actual experience in state governance, although he has frequently highlighted his entrepreneurial leadership as the founder of the country's first computer anti-virus program provider.
HONG JOON-PYO, 62, LIBERTY PARTY OF KOREA
Hong Joon-pyo, the flag-bearer for South Korea’s embattled ruling party, billed himself as the true representative of conservatives, after the impeachment of former President Park.
The former governor and star-prosecutor has earned a nickname “Hong-Trump” for his aggressive and controversial comments, including his sexist and homophobic remarks and alleged complicity in a sexual assault attempt.
Hong was seen as the most unexpected player in this year’s presidential election, suddenly emerging as the only likely candidate for the conservative party which has struggled as a result of Park’s ignominious fall.
Yet, his ultra-conservative vision and unrefined rhetoric is appealing to right-leaning voters, especially those residing in the Daegu-North Gyeongsang Province area, the political home turf of Park and her party.
Experts say Hong’s seemingly enigmatic rise is due to the consolidation of conservative voters, who earlier in the race were largely divided over who to support.
Senior conservative voters in particular are actively supporting Hong, who resigned from his post as South Gyeongsang Province governor to embark on his presidential race.
Hong has pledged to push for a hardline stance on North Korea and other security issues, vowed to revive the death penalty in the country and crack down on unionists who he has accused of slowing the economy.