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South Korean politicians jostle to succeed lamest of ducks

People's Party Co-Chairman Ahn Cheol-soo, center, is seen as a likely candidate for president.

SEOUL -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye still has 22 months left in office. But following her Saenuri Party's crushing defeat in Wednesday's parliamentary election, rivals sense a prime opportunity to complete the power shift in the December 2017 presidential vote.

     One man angling to succeed Park after her single five-year term is Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chairman of the newly established People's Party. Among likely presidential candidates, Ahn made the biggest strides in the parliamentary poll, with his party almost doubling its seat count. 

     Ahn formed the party in February, aiming to create a powerful third force in South Korean politics. On Thursday, he spoke about "repaying" the public by changing "politics, the government and people's lives." Speaking to the party's election planning commission, he called for putting an end to eight years of conservative rule. 

     Ahn was seen as a potential favorite in the previous presidential election but held off on running. He is not a career politician: A graduate of Seoul National University's medical school and an information-technology entrepreneur, he straddles the line between left and right and could draw support from either side in the next presidential election.

     After the vote on Wednesday, he called on reformists within the Saenuri Party to join forces with him. Saenuri became the first ruling party in 16 years to lose its parliamentary majority.

Sour on Saenuri

Another ascendant candidate is Kim Boo-kyum, who won a seat under the banner of the Minjoo Party of Korea -- the largest opposition group. Kim was the sole opposition winner in single-seat constituencies in Daegu, Park's hometown. He beat a Saenuri kingpin, a former governor of Gyeonggi Province, in the process. Though only 58, it was Kim's fourth election victory.

     On the other hand, Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung's presidential chances took a hit. Though he won his constituency, he announced on Thursday that he would resign as chairman to take responsibility for the party's loss. He had been expected to give up the post anyway, to prepare for a presidential bid, but the scale of the defeat is likely to hurt him.

     Former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, widely considered Park's successor of choice, also felt the impact of waning support for the Saenuri Party. He suffered a bitter defeat in a hotly contested constituency in central Seoul.

     It is hard to say what the parliamentary election spells for Park's rival in the 2012 presidential poll, the Minjoo Party's Moon Jae-in.

     The party, which he once led, lost in its Jeolla Province stronghold to the People's Party. But many pro-Moon members won seats in Saenuri-dominated Busan and South Gyeongsang Province.

     The X-factor could be United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Polls show strong support for a President Ban. His weakness is a lack of party support. There is talk that the Saenuri Party may start arranging for him to be its candidate, but pundits say a Park-backed candidacy is no longer an option. 

     Ban has yet to declare whether he intends to run at all.

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