April 18, 2017 2:00 pm JST

'Shy voters' changing landscape of South Korea presidential race

Quiet conservatives making voices heard as Moon Jae-in, Ahn Cheol-soo court their votes

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

Moon Jae-in, left, and Ahn Cheol-soo © AP

SEOUL -- Support for Ahn Cheol-soo, the former leader of the centrist and second-largest opposition People's Party, is rising sharply in the presidential election in South Korea, halting a dominant lead by Moon Jae-in, a former representative of the reform-minded largest opposition Democratic Party of Korea, in the run-up to the polls on May 9.

The changing landscape of the election, amid the controversy surrounding the impeachment and dismissal of former President Park Geun-hye, is being driven by "shy voters."

People's Party members were euphoric about survey results carried on the front pages of morning newspapers on April 10, as most of them found Ahn running neck and neck with Moon, with ratings over 35%. "An Ahn Cheol-soo blast has come," one of them said.

The findings were dramatic, as Ahn had been running far behind Moon a month earlier, supported by less than 10% of voters in opinion polls.

North Korea factor

"Shy conservative voters" contributed anywhere from 10 to 25 percentage points to the jump of nearly 30 points in Ahn's support rating within a month, said a senior campaign strategist in the conservative Liberty Korea Party.

Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in a come-from-behind manner last year thanks to "closet or shy Trump supporters."

In the South Korean presidential election, people who have not admitted who they are going to vote for are called "shy conservatives."

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper's poll showed that more than half of voters aged 50 to 60 support Ahn.

People in this generation experienced the Korean War and South Korea's high economic growth known as the "Miracle on the Han River." Many of them are conservative and stability-oriented and formed Park's support base.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was supported by conservatives as Park's successor but decided not to run in the presidential election before it began to gather steam.

Conservatives then shifted their support to Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is serving as acting president and prime minister. As Hwang decided not to run in the election, conservatives, along with supporters for Ahn Hee-jung, governor of South Chungcheong, who lost to Moon in the Democratic Party's primary election to choose its candidate, flocked to Ahn.

While Moon is overwhelmingly supported by people aged 19 to 49, Ahn is starting to gain support from them.

Still divided

In South Korea, which is still divided from North Korea along a fortified demilitarized zone, conservatives and liberals continue their tug of war. Popular sentiment about North Korea has reportedly been going negative even among young people since the establishment of the Kim Jong Un regime in the northern neighbor.

The arrest of Park, Moon's victory in the Democratic Party's preliminary election and increased tensions over North Korea have changed trends in the presidential campaign, analysts noted.

Among conservatives faced with headwinds in the wake of the Park scandal, hard-liners continue to take to the streets to protest her impeachment. In contrast, moderate conservatives, who are close to middle-of-the-roaders, were unable to openly declare their support for conservative candidates or Ahn amid the anti-Park storm.

But the arrest of Park has enabled shy conservatives to put the past behind them and start making their voices heard, analysts said.

Voters are also being affected by concern about the "South Korea passing," or the Trump administration's decision to pursue a hard-line policy against North Korea without considering Seoul's wishes.

In the absence of a major conservative candidate for president, Ahn recently changed his stance in favor of the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system by U.S. forces in South Korea. Conservatives now see Ahn as a candidate who can win the presidential election.

Stance on North Korea is becoming a major point of controversy in the election.

"I am definitely warning North Korea. I will grab a gun myself if another calamity occurs on the Korean Peninsula," Moon declared at his party's headquarters in the evening of April 11. He convened an emergency security meeting after canceling his scheduled stumping tour.

Uncertain outlook for voting

It remains uncertain who conservatives will eventually vote for in the presidential election.

In last Wednesday's national parliamentary by-election, a candidate from the Liberty Korea Party, who was a top assistant to Park, was the winner. The conservative party also demonstrated its strength in local elections, while the People's Party Ahn belongs to performed poorly.

The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper's opinion poll, dated Monday, found Moon and Ahn in a head-to-head race, separated by only a single point.

Members of the Moon camp remain bullish, saying that votes will eventually be split between Ahn and conservative candidates and that Ahn supporters lack principles and will not go to the polls.

This presidential election, in effect a contest between reformist and centrist candidates, is still too close to call.

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