South Korean Presidential Election Starts With Surprise

An independent candidate drops out, making the election a two-person race.

The election for the presidency of South Korea crystallized over the weekend as a popular independent candidate abandoned his bid and instead endorsed the liberal challenger from the main opposition party.

With the two day official registration period for the candidates beginning on Sunday and the campaigns kicking off on Tuesday, in just 22 days South Koreans will go to the polls to elect their next president.

The election comes against the backdrop of slowing economic growth worldwide that threatens South Korea’s vital export markets, relations with Japan souring over an island dispute and ongoing tension with North Korea over its nuclear program.

The choice before the public next month will be between two candidates seemingly representing polar opposites in the South Korean political system: the conservative descendant of a military dictator and a human rights lawyer who worked for an icon to progressives.

Park Geun-hye, from the ruling Saenuri Party, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee who seized power in a military coup d’état in 1961 and ruled as president until his assassination in 1979. Park’s policies are widely recognized as having laid the foundation for the economic growth that transformed South Korea from a backwater into one of Asia’s most dynamic economies.

The other candidate from the main opposition Democratic Union Party, Moon Jae-in, is a human rights attorney and former chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh is revered by liberals in South Korea for his social welfare policies and defense of student demonstrators as a lawyer in the 1980s.

In 2007, Park lost her party’s presidential primary election to incumbent president Lee Myung-bak. If elected, the sixty year-old would be South Korea’s first female president. When she resigned her seat as a representative in parliament, before registering her candidacy on Sunday, she said that this is it for her. If she fails to win the election this time it “will put an end to my political voyage.”

The candidates agree on the need for greater engagement with North Korea as well as closing the gap between rich and poor. They also agree on the need to reverse South Korea’s slowing economic growth and rising household debt.

Moon wants to balance South Korea’s relations with the United States in favor of China. He also would like to renegotiate the a recently conducted American-South Korean trade agreement in order to raise taxes on the wealthy and big corporations. He has called Park a princess who does not understand the plight of ordinary South Koreans. During the 1970s, when he was a student activist, Moon was put in prison by Park’s father.

The conservative favors support of the chaebol, the famous South Korean family run conglomerates that make up a large portion of the economy, to create jobs and continue growth in the economy.

The race was upended after the independent candidate, wealthy businessman Ahn Cheol-soo, announced that he would not run after all. Ahn instead endorsed fellow liberal candidate Moon. Ahn, who founded an anti-virus software company, enjoyed popular support from young voters but foundered over doubts about his lack of government experience.

Ahn and Moon had been in negotiations over unifying their campaigns in the hope of avoiding splitting the liberal vote against Park. Though polls have shown Ahn the more popular of the two, the lingering questions over his political experience gave Moon an advantage over voters when asked which candidate could actually beat Park.

Polls taken after Ahn abandoned his candidacy showed the race between Moon and Park to be neck and neck. Some 50 percent of Ahn’s supporters are believed to have gone over to Moon, 25 to Park, with the balance undecided.

With the campaign officially getting underway this week, the candidates will be allowed to give speeches up to twenty minutes long on television and radio, engage in three televised debates with each other and start with the phone calls, mailings and campaign ads that make for a democratic election.