May 2, 2017 6:00 am JST

Moon surges ahead in South Korean presidential race

Main rival Ahn bleeds conservative support after debate fiasco

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- Front-runner Moon Jae-in is widening his lead over rival Ahn Cheol-soo as South Korea heads into the final week of its presidential election race, with conservative voters drifting away from centrist Ahn following a lackluster debate performance.

Moon of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea drew 42.6% support, even after a 1.8 percentage point drop, in a Realmeter poll published Sunday. Ahn of the centrist People's Party saw his support fall 1.9 points to 20.9% and trails Moon by more than 10 points in other polls as well.

Moon had initially enjoyed a sizable lead before Ahn caught up in early April, with some polls even putting Ahn on top. But while Moon has consistently polled around 40%, Ahn now languishes more than 10 points below his onetime peak in the upper 30s as the May 9 vote draws near.

Ahn's rapid rise was triggered by the American missile strikes on Syria and resulting concerns that North Korea will come next. Conservatives, lacking an appealing candidate of their own, rallied behind Ahn for his focus on national security.

But he floundered after Moon slammed him in a televised debate for supporting the deployment of the U.S.'s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield in South Korea, despite initially opposing it. His ratings fell, which led right-wing voters to get off the bandwagon and to back conservative candidates instead. Reduced concerns over North Korea seem to be playing a role in Ahn's decline as well.

Many conservatives now support Hong Jun-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party. The third-ranking contender has 46.8% of the right-wing vote, according to the Realmeter poll. Overall, he has gained 3.7 points to reach 16.7% after recapturing much of his natural base and is not far behind Ahn.

To boost the chances of defeating Moon, there is a strong push within Ahn's People's Party, the Liberty Korea Party and conservative Bareun Party to unite behind a single candidate. But the contenders themselves have refused.

Printing of ballots began Sunday. Even if conservative candidates withdraw before the vote to clear a path for Ahn, their names will remain on the page to possibly undermine their own efforts.

While Moon still does not enjoy a decisive lead, local media report that the race no longer looks like a head-to-head battle between him and Ahn.

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