March 16, 2017 5:30 am JST

South Korea's right lacks clear leader ahead of May 9 vote

Leftists dominating snap presidential race after Park's impeachment

KENICHI YAMADA, Nikkei staff writer

Cheong Wa Dae, or the Blue House, South Korea's presidential compound.

SEOUL -- As South Korea rapidly approaches its May 9 presidential election, conservatives are struggling to find a candidate with a fighting chance against popular liberals to replace disgraced leader Park Geun-hye.

Parties are already holding debates and making other preparations for the election. The leading opposition Democratic Party has emerged as a clear front-runner. According to polling company R&Search, former party leader Moon Jae-in leads the field with 34.5% support, followed by South Chungcheong province Gov. Ahn Hee-jung with 15.3%. Together with Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung, who came in fifth, the party's three candidates have nearly 60% of total support. Whoever the party nominates, which could happen as early as April 3, will be the closest candidate to winning the presidency.

In the past, conservatives and liberals fought tight races over the country's top post. But the conservative bloc has yet to find a flag-bearer this time around.

Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, once considered a potential successor to Park, withdrew in February. Prime Minister and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn said Wednesday that he would not run. While he knew some Koreans wanted him to, he could not neglect his current responsibilities at this time of crisis, Hwang said.

The liberal candidates want to narrow economic inequality. They are critical of the conservative government's policy toward North Korea, which relies entirely on sanctions and pressure. They all also want to cancel or renegotiate a 2015 deal with Japan designed to put the issue of wartime "comfort women" to rest. Seoul's relations with Washington and Tokyo may suffer if any of the liberals become president.

With their backs to the wall, conservatives are scrambling for alternatives. They may join hands with the centrists in support of Ahn Cheol-soo, a former co-chairman of the opposition People's Party who now has 11.3% support, if Moon ends up on the Democratic Party's ticket.

For his part, Ahn Cheol-soo appears to be wooing conservative voters. On Wednesday, he vowed to strengthen legislative powers and weaken the president's office, such as by requiring the National Assembly's approval for all cabinet appointments. He intends to do this through constitutional reform -- one of the right's key goals.

Because Park is the first South Korean president to be removed through impeachment, the process of electing her replacement will be rather unconventional. Normally, parties start their primaries around summer to choose their official candidates, who spend about six months campaigning before the final vote in December. But May 9 is less than two months away.

The unusually tight schedule will likely be a plus for front-runner Moon. He already knows the ropes, since he ran against Park in the previous election. He is well-known among the public, and is said to have no skeletons in his closet.

The next president will begin a five-year term shortly after the vote. With a normal December election, the incoming administration would have until its inauguration in February to flesh out policies with a transition team. No such team is expected this time.

The new prime minister and some cabinet appointees will require congressional approval. There is a chance some members of the Park administration will stay on for some time, which could lead to continued confusion in South Korea's political landscape.

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