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Ex-PMs go head-to-head in South Korea as election campaign starts

Moon’s party gets tailwind from his handling of coronavirus

SEOUL -- For South Korean members of parliament, the new coronavirus pandemic is not the only thing on their minds. They also have to campaign for a general election taking place in two weeks.

Official campaigning began Thursday for the April 15 National Assembly poll that will be a signpost as to who will succeed President Moon Jae-in, whose term expires in 2022. Voters will pick the 300 lawmakers who will represent them over the next four years.

While Moon's liberal Democratic Party is leading the conservative United Future Party in opinion polls, much may change over the next two weeks. Political analysts are also focusing on key races.

Perhaps the biggest spotlight is on the matchup in the Jongno district of central Seoul between Lee Nak-yon, Moon's first prime minister, and Hwang Kyo-ahn, the final prime minister under imprisoned former President Park Geun-hye.

A poll by Ipsos last week showed Lee, of the Democratic Party, ahead of the UFP's Hwang, with the support of 55.1% of respondents, compared with 34.5% who back Hwang.

Lee won praise for his steady management of the government during his premiership, which lasted two and a half years and ended in January. Hwang, meanwhile, has fallen under a cloud of suspicion over influence-peddling to get his aides nominated for the election.

The Jongno seat is seen as important because it is home to the presidential Blue House, the Gyeongbok Palace and the Seoul Government Complex. Three representatives of the district have gone on to become president -- Yun Posun, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak.

Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, is trying to become the first defector to become a member of the National Assembly through election.   © AP

In the affluent Gangnam district in southern Seoul, Thae Yong-ho stands a good chance of becoming the first North Korean defector to become a parliamentarian through election in the South.

The former diplomat defected to South Korea from a post in London, where he was North Korea's deputy ambassador to the U.K. Running on the UFP ticket, he leads his Democratic rival, Kim Sung-kon, 42.6% to 33.7%, according to a poll by Ipsos last week.

"I decided to run for election because the National Assembly is the place where I can show my expertise and experience most effectively," Thae said in a February news conference in Seoul. "And I also wanted to show South Korea's freedom and democracy to North Korean people."

Gangnam, immortalized in a hit song by K-pop artist Psy, is home to some of the richest people in the country. Conservative lawmakers have held the seat for the past three decades.

Two veterans are also battling it out in the Suseong A district in Daegu, the southern city that recently saw an explosion of COVID-19 virus infections.

Then South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, left, meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Oct. 24, 2019. Lee is now running in the country's general election in a key central Seoul seat against another former premier.   © AP

Four-term lawmaker Kim Boo-kyum of the Democratic Party is struggling to fend off the UFP's Joo Ho-young, also a four-termer, who has led in recent polls.

Kim, who was Moon's first interior minister, may fall victim to anti-government sentiment in the region over its handling of the Daegu outbreak. Residents there say they were isolated and neglected in the early stages of the epidemic.

Despite the criticism in Daegu, Moon's party may be helped by polls that show the president has managed the outbreak well nationally. His personal approving rating jumped to 55% in fourth week of March, up from 49% the previous week, according to Gallup Korea.

The Democrats had a support rate of 37% in the poll, compared to 22% who backed the UFP.

But with 27% of respondents saying they back no party, analysts say it is too soon to tell which will gain the most seats. Other factors, such as turnout amid the coronavirus outbreak, could also come into play.

"It is not easy to forecast the election, as many things may change during the campaign. This happened four years ago," said Jeong Ji-yeon, a director at Gallup Korea. "Good management of the coronavirus is good for the president and the government, but that does not necessarily mean that the governing party will win."

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